On Representational and Discriminative Theories of Culture
February 25, 2017
There cannot be a more effectual way found out to silence the Complaints and Murmurs of the Common People, when they pretend to find fault with the Miscarriages and the Impositions of the Government than if we would lay before them a true Prospect of the Misery and Confusion which attends the Natural State.” — Samuel Pufendorf, Law of Nature
Culture serves a vital role for us, in the development of our minds, as individuals, and in the development of our society as a whole. The jurist Samuel Pufendorf, who attempted to reconstruct the natural law philosophy of Hugo Grotius using Hobbesian methodology, did so by distinguishing between cultura and civitas. In opposition to Hobbes, Pufendorf argued that human society was possible without a contract, that the formation of positive states, or civic associations, must have been preceded by a negative culture, rooted in human sociability. Cultura, for Pufendorf, was a term which collectively described everything that mankind did to raise himself above his own imbecility, which would include practices like clothing, manners etc.
Culture is negative because it is restrictive of our actions, but exerts no positive force over them. The law which civil society enforces, however, is of an entirely different nature, it is positive, force is used to implement it. You will be restrained or killed for contravening its strict impositions. Under the rule of negative culture, man cannot be restrained from doing anything that it pleases him to do, he can be restrained only by himself, only by deciding it is not in his own best interest to pursue an action that may be socially disadvantageous.
Sociability is, in its most radical formulations by thinkers like Bernard Mandeville, entirely rooted in self-interest. In the State of Nature man is guided by self-love, by the drive to self-preservation and the fulfillment of his natural appetites. Society provides him with ways of satisfying his appetites in ways that are not possible without some coordination. Though in the State of Nature, provisions may be abundant enough that the forager is never in any peril of starvation, that food is nowhere near as tasty to his palate as what he can acquire in society. To be admitted to society, one must adhere to the negative rule of culture, which requires him to modulate his behavior in ways that will cause him to be viewed in a positive light by his fellows.
This level of society is possible, Pufendorf insisted, without the existence of the State, without a positive contract of laws backed by force. This kind of culture is hence negative, it forces us to judge every action we propose to ourselves to take against a standard, that of Society’s. How will my actions be perceived? How will that perception affect my position within society? How does that change in position impact my access to the goodies offered by society that I can not obtain on my own? If we are considering an action that might adversely affect our position, will the gain we make by means of that action offset the loss of benefits we are able to obtain from society as a result of our questionable conduct? These are the questions that man, in his Cultural, or Aesthetic state, must ask himself.
Pufendorf goes on to argue that it is not a change in the nature of human sociability which necessitates the creation of positive property rights and positive law, it is only due to the sheer extent of the cultura that man has constructed for himself that he requires the implementation of some positive law to reinforce it. This positive law functions in a entirely different manner from the negative law of culture, as it makes specific prohibitions against his possible actions, and backs these by force. With regards to positive law there is no more need for complex judgments involving the individual’s social status, as the State reaches out and makes the loss of position real. It is no longer open to interpretation how much we might set ourselves back, it is not a matter of relative social position, it can now be measured in the amount of property seized or the number of years spent in prison.
This is the fundamental difference: Positive Law enumerates, going possible action by possible action, prohibiting them one by one. The Negative Law of cultura is more a rubric for creating laws the individual imposes on himself. For every possible course of action that he can take up, he can follow the rubric of culture to create a law for the possibility he has only now just considered, possibly for the first time in all of humanity. Is what he’s planning good or bad, rather than legal or illegal, to put in the simplest way I know how.
The mechanism of judgement whereby man constructs new laws to govern the actions he has invented is here what I would like to consider in greater detail. As soon as man has dreamed up an action he can test it out in his mind. He simulates for himself the reactions of people he knows by extrapolating from his past observation of their personalities. These personalities, in turn, we find revolving around a center, which is a collective subject amounting to the totality of reactions across all observers. This is the primordial kernel of Society. This totality, naturally, is infinite, and amounts to an aggregation of potentialities, not all of which will ever be realized.
Nearer he is to the State of Nature, the smaller man’s cultura is in the extent of its possible dominion. During the pre-historic epoch, surely, cultura existed only in small pockets, extending over immediate families or small communities, perhaps of no more than 100 members. In this earlier state of society, it would have only been necessary for a member to consider how the immediate, and finite class of members comprising his micro-society would react to his behavior, and even then, only in so far as the members were individualized from one another. Thousands of years later we find man in state of very advanced cultura, where he is able to stack and arrange a huge number of micro-societies so as to coordinate them into higher level macro-entities, as is the case with concepts like ‘Global’ culture, or ‘Western’ culture, or ‘European’ culture.
In his more primitive condition, man had no need for an abstract and generalized idea of society, which is an infinite aggregation in the form of an intellectual conception, no, his society was entirely imminent around him, and was peopled fully by a number of individuals that was, more or less, easily reckoned with in the social calculations of any given member. Very complex societies, however, which unite and coordinate thousands of smaller societies, require a more sophisticated approach to cognitive calculus.
As the centuries have rolled on, and mankind has sharpened and refined every tool he makes use of, so too has he refined his cultura, to facilitate more complex organizational structures. As this was the focus of my previous essay, I will not belabor this point too much, but will only add one additional comment: that the concept of Society, as it developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, was only an innovation of the previously mentioned cognitive calculus. It was, in essence, to treat the abstract and infinite aggregate of reactions people might have to our behavior as if it were a known quantity, so as to permit a more complex social mathematics to function.
To continue, though, we must ask, how does culture facilitate the judgmental process we engage in when we consider our projected actions in light of our own sociability? To be sure, culture is not monolithic, but is rather composed of many aesthetic objects, some of which we call artworks. Every object which human art and artifice can contrive exists, at least to some degree, aesthetically. Not only is a plane or a car an efficient machine, but their well-engineered designs can also be an object of aesthetic appreciation. Culture here, to follow Pufendorf, is meant in its fullest possible extension, to consist of everything which man produces to raise himself from his state of barbarity and imbecility. Together, consumption of, and interaction with clusters of these objects, have the effect of causing a man to become cultured. Aesthetic-Cultural objects can impart to those who engage with them a polish and sophistication of manners which, though artificial, is a nothing more than a consequence of a natural tendency towards emulation.
It has long been debated, what is the ‘meaning’ or art, and there are different schools of thought in regards to this question. Right now, the most broadly conceded formulation involves artworks being representational. Art is imagined to be a projection, or mirror image representation of abstract conceptual entities (like Society). These entities cannot be said to exist in any normal sense, but some, such as Hegel, have nonetheless envisioned art as making manifest our ideal conceptions as physical, rather than merely intellectual, objects. It is common, in light of this, for novels to be interpreted as being portraits, or representations of Society, as if Society were Hamann’s Mr. Nobody, the Well-Known, and was capable of sitting for a picture like any other ordinary physical being.
As we have seen though, the Society we use in our social calculations is merely an ‘as-if,’ an infinite construct being taken as a known-quantity. That such an entity can be directly represented, despite being really an infinite hypothetical, is a highly dubious proposition, and one we should not be over-hasty in conceding. If it is the case, that Society cannot be directly represented, than what is going on in a Novel? If not representation?
Instead of being viewed as representations, I believe, artworks and cultural effusions should be viewed primarily as models of discrimination. For they teach rather by example than they do through positive representation. They teach us how to judge, and we are always emulating the judgments we find operating within novels and other works of art, and by means of such emulation of their judgments, we can gradually seek out their source in a principle of judgment, whereby we can create new judgments at will without reference to a specific example of how the principle is to be applied in a particular instance. The procedure by which we formulate the general principle of judgment is one of rational reverse engineering from applications of the principle, in order to generate a mental model capable of producing all the judgments we have before us.
It might be useful, at this point, to go back a step, to look at how artworks are actually constructed in order to illuminate how they influence the operation of our judgment:
“It probably remains man’s greatest merit when he can determine circumstances as much as possible and can let himself be determined as little as possible by them. The whole universe lies before us, like a great quarry before the master builder, who only deserves this name if he can put together with the greatest economy, purposiveness and firmness these chance natural masses according to a primal image formed in his own mind. Everything apart from ourselves consists only of elements, indeed I may well say everything about us; but there lies deep within us this creative force which is able to call into being what it is to be and does not let us pause or rest until we have given expression to it outside ourselves.” — Goethe, Wilhelm Mesiter’s Apprenticeship
An artwork is not a total vision, which has simply materialized as a unity. No, artworks are rather complex assemblages of materials taken from life and experience, which can really amount to anything. The material of an author, for instance, might consist of episodes from his own life or history; the personalities or stories of people he has knowledge of, either personally, or from reading; the ideas of philosophers; contemporary fashion etc. Everything for him is material, and this is what his book is made up of. He does not create the material, out of his own head, but merely arranges it in a purposeful fashion. He is free to use whatever material he can collect, and is able to assemble it in any way that he wishes. The tragic downfall of a historical figure is used by the dramatist as the whole subject of his work, by the novelist however, it is only a funny anecdote to put into Sancho Panza’s mouth, which he is bound to garble and empty entirely of pathos. Here the same piece of material is treated in two different ways, and this is always what is going on in art. The artist does cannot create material for himself, but he has unlimited freedom to present the material in whatever clever way he so decides.
This is the basis of a model of art as Discriminating and not Representational in nature. The Discriminating artwork does not presuppose that the material stands in relation to each other in a concrete pattern, which is real, and which the author merely reports, or represents, as it is observed. The Discriminating artwork rather just shows how the author has judged a series of things, one after the other. What is being ‘represented,’ is a judgment-formula. By seeing how the author has judged each thing in turn, we can reconstruct the formula in our own mind and apply it endlessly to everything we encounter.
Individuals, when they go out into the Social-world of cultura and procure for themselves some artworks to consume, soon begin to emulate the judgments they find therein, and attempt gradually to extend them to other phenomena outside of the exact scope of the original example, or model judgment. Eventually, if they are judicious students, they begin to reconstruct the principle which produced all these judgments, and gain full command over the perspective they have been engaging with. Each work he goes through he repeats this process. Some entice him with their extensive applicability and coherence. Some seem to him to be forced perspectives and these he will usually not bother reconstructing for himself if he perceives the perspective to be without use to him, or contrary to the natural inclination of his common-sense. The individual, having made some progress in extracting useful model judgments, will return again and again to the store of culture to draw from it supplement those perspectives he is most actively interested in, and will favor perspectives that augment or reinforce those he is seeking to fully abstract. From these perspectives he may even attempt to synthesize a new formula which in turn might become the basis for his own artistic endeavor.
Not all cultural productions are, in this way, created equal. Some endure and some attract only chronologically and circumstantially local attention. These latter ones are soon forgotten, and only certain objects of culture persist for more than a brief time in their influence. These we term ‘Great’ works. What their greatness consists of is a challenging question, perhaps one best suited to another time, and another treatment. I will only say briefly that the so-called Great work endures because the principle of judgment at work is of a particularly generalized nature. Generalized in the sense that the template of judgment possesses such a broad applicability it easily carries over to material and physical circumstances which the designer never even imagined would exist. A narrow political work, (think Ayn Rand), can present an extremely specific perspective that does not extend over Humanity, as-such, but only over Humanity under very specific historical and material conditions.
The great work will be a model of discrimination which is truly universal, this will cause it to endure into future centuries, where its rubric and formula will still be of use to those who put the effort into reconstructing it. This generalized formula for judging, in order to encompass the whole of all possible judgment-formers, must be as abstracted as much as possible from all material exigency, and must be founded on the part of man which persists through every era, which is nothing less than the intersection of his cognitive faculties.
Art which is produced from the misguided assumption that culture serves a representational function can never be ‘great’ in the sense described above, as the perspective of judgment will always be incredibly narrow. The reason for this is that to represent something is to limit it. Nothing can exist which is not limited. The concept of a human being cannot exist without becoming an individual and losing all generality. Today we have an endless dispute and discussion over the representational responsibilities of producers of culture. There is a feeling that cultural effusion is duty-bound to advance a more (racially, religiously, sexually) harmonious society. By doing so, it is hoped, the tendency for cultural consumers to emulate will be activated into recreating the (preferred) world of the author within the confines of material actuality.
Representation though, as already noted, requires limitation. The author cannot represent a conception of society in its ideality without interpreting it into a particular form, which, consequently, loses all force of being a generalized conception and appears only as shadow to the observer-consumer. To desire individuals on a mass scale to emulate you in your valuations, and in so doing reconstruct the Societal ideal you have attempted to represent, is to provide them with a inapplicable model of discrimination, one which will never succeed in recreating anything but its own extremely narrow conception on a small sub-cultural scale (as it has done with current fandoms of involving progressive cartoon shows and tv sitcoms). The avid consumer of this contemporary representational media properties is an anachronism in any other era, and an alien in any other place.
An extensive society requires an extensive culture, one that can teach individuals to discriminate wisely about themselves, their own actions, and their place within society. By limiting forcing a perspective, and providing a shallow pool of model judgments, you thereby attempt to restrict people very severely in what sort of actions are possible for them. This is a direct consequence of a limited judgmental framework that can not conceive of actions outside of a strictly prescribed set. This in turn hampers and destroys the adaptability of individuals who attempt to draw from cultura to form their behavior, as they will not be able to determine the use-value of actions outside of those explicitly outlined for them.
What has ultimately resulted is a closed perspective functioning as mass-illusion. The members of the contemporary media class close ranks and attempt to artificially reinforce the world each of them alone has failed to successfully represent into existence. As the internet transforms cultural and literary thinking, it is clear that this oligopoly of perspective is untenable, and cracking beneath the subversive weight of the radical kinds of judgments trolls are showing people are possible. It is only a matter of time before this forced perspective of premium TV, comic books, and other common amusements fractures into a million pieces, and when that happens, many people will find themselves with no working model to construct complex valuations of social activity and corresponding outcomes.
Perhaps this collapse of the represented world is already occurring, and the flirtation of people with extreme perspectives like Nazism is only the result of them being left completely helpless by the dysfunctional model of discrimination the narrow art they consume tried to force upon them in a misguided attempt to build a better world.
A consequence of Pufendorf is that Positive Law serves only to fortify Negative Culture, and the weaker and less discriminating culture is, it stands to reason, the stronger Positive Law will have to be to compensate. To assist people in forming the correct behavior and patterns of action, the State must step in when they are no longer able to properly discriminate between outcomes.
I will close with one more observation, that if that is the case, then is it not by repairing Negative and Discriminative culture that we can reduce the burden of Civic oppression and constraint for ourselves. This requires an entirely new model of art than what currently exists. For the denizens of the emerging Altright media, the ebook merchants and hucksters, what do they really want but to take over the representational regime of the liberal media elite? Those who follow them on this path will do nothing to improve the condition of our society, as representing the world to be more ethnically tolerable will only run you aground on the same mistaken understanding of how culture truly functions. To restore Negative Culture to its former power, and rescue human sociability from the dystopian hyper-extension of civic society, involves not in representing a better world, but in sharing a refinement of discrimination with people, one guided by taste rooted in the logical law which underpins our psychic architecture. A self-help book is unlikely to attain to the level of a generalized and useful perspective, and neither will a cartoon show about transgendered children in space get you there either.
Perhaps my comments have been of too general a nature, but this essay is just another judgment, another block of matter in the chain of material. There will, hopefully, be another opportunity to more completely develop some of what I have here sketched, and until then, I hope what I have managed to outline will be of some use to you in your own explorations.