Thursday, June 14, 2018

Power As Arbitrary and Conventional

Following the sickening spectacle of President Trump in conflict with our closest allies, single-handedly undermining the western alliance that has been in place since the end of the Second World War, and then cozying up to the dictator of North Korea, arguably a monster on a par with Hitler and Stalin, albeit on a smaller scale, I was reminded of what was said about the Nazi concentration camps. 

It was not just that the Nazis were cruel and inhuman, or used a mechanism for committing genocide with a factory-like efficiency. It was also that survivors described how guards and officers meted out punishments and rewards with no particular rationale, no sense of what kind of behavior was approved or disapproved of. There was no sense to their actions, no way to make meaning out of the misery they inflicted, no inkling of order within the chaos. It was a deliberate policy of confusion, a method of effecting complete and utter desperation and despair.

In other words, their actions were arbitrary. They had no rationale. They appeared to be entirely random in how they approached acts of reward and punishment. This made their actions utterly unpredictable. And this served to make their power essentially absolute.

Rules of any sort function as constraints, limitations. Imposing rules on what can or cannot be done help to make actions relatively predictable, at least to reduce their unpredictability. For this reason, rules serve as a counter to power, a way of constraining and limiting the exercise of power. They are a grammar governing human behavior.

Considering Trump's recent actions, they appear to be almost entirely arbitrary. Treating Canada as an adversary. Doing a 180 from threatening North Korea with nuclear devastation to giving them an unequivocal win on the world stage in exchange for nothing concrete, not to mention the leap frog from South Korea's initiative to meet with the North Korean dictator to Trump completely bypassing our South Korean allies. Sure, we can find explanations here and there for these moves, pundits can rationalize them in both positive and negative terms, but the bottom line is that are essentially random, arbitrary, and unpredictable.

The unpredictable nature of Trump's actions are key here. Everyone is taken by surprise, even in taking into account that he is unconventional, narcissistic, and seeking to undo everything that his predecessor accomplished. Even knowing all that, everyone is always surprised by his actions. And this, more than anything, serves to demonstrate his power.

Being arbitrary, being unpredictable, shows that he is free from any rules or conventions, any constraints or limitations, on his power.

At this point, I want to go back to Hannah Arendt's arguments about power as it relates to violence. I wrote a series of blog posts about that topic back in 2011:  Violence and Technology, Violence and Power, Violence and Identity, and Violence and Unity. The key point that Arendt makes is that violence stands in polar opposition to power. That is, the presence of violence represents a lack or loss of power, an attempt to compensate for its absence. Power requires acquiescence, obedience, the absence of resistance, whether violent or not.

Power, therefore, is demonstrated by the absence of the use of force, by the absence of any need for enforcement. What this means is that power is symbolic rather than substantive. You could call it rhetorical, or ideological (although that tends to be poorly defined), but mainly it's that power is a form of symbolism. It's not simply that symbols, language, discourse, etc.,  reflect the power relationships that exist in society, as folks like Foucault maintain, but that power itself is a form of symbolic communication. Power exists in the relationship between symbol and referent, signifier and signified, or in general semantics terms, between map and territory, between word and what the word represents.

It is, of course, basic communication 101 that a symbol is arbitrary and convention. It is arbitrary because it bears no necessary relationship to what it represents. Saying the word "fire" out loud has no actual connection to the phenomenon of burning. This is in contrast to the presence of smoke, for example, which always is a product of burning. That's why shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater can be a false alarm, and why the same phenomenon can be represented by saying words like, "feu,""feuer,""fuego," "brand," "zjarr," "hixs,""ahi," "srefah," "kaji da,""may ba-giy," "unlilo," etc. The connection between smoke and fire is causal, and the connection between a picture of fire and the phenomenon of flame is one of resemblance. But the connection between the word "fire" and the phenomenon is purely conventional, purely based on the unspoken and largely unconscious agreement that the word will "stand for," "point to," in other words represent the actual phenomenon (or concept that in turn represents the phenomenon).

Symbols are characterized as arbitrary and conventional. Power in its purest sense is arbitrary in nature, being fundamentally divorced from force, and violence. Power therefore is a form of the symbolic. The existence and expression of power is based on the acceptance of everyone concerned, those who "have" power" and those who do not, those who "wield" power and those upon whom that "power" is directed and exerted, the dominant and the subordinate. Power, in other words, is a product of convention, is conventional in the sense that it depends upon its acceptance by everyone involved.

The symbolic interactionist and sociologist Hugh Dalziel Duncan argued that societies are held together by symbols, and that it is only when people stop believing in their shared symbolic environment, when they question and reject its conventional meanings, that societies go into decline, and disintegrate, whether by revolution or other means. Power is conventional, based on agreement, as well as arbitrary. That is why power can evaporate quite suddenly, shockingly so. Think of the downfall of many a dictator. Think of the sudden dissolution of the Soviet Union.

But convention is also a kind of constraint, and therefore places some form of limitation and constraint on power. What this means is that there is a kind of dynamic tension between the arbitrary character of symbols/power, and their conventional aspect. In the absence of conventions, meaning cannot be established, purposeful communication breaks down, legitimacy is lost, and power vanishes, replaced by violence.

Trump's main motivations seem to include the demonstration and exercise of power, and in flouting established conventions regarding presidential conduct, he has been trying to establish that he is not bound by rules and norms, by constraints and limitations, that he is able to wield power in ways that his predecessors could not, that his power is near absolute. This is consistent with him wielding power in ways that seem random and unpredictable. He has an intuitive sense of the symbolic nature of power, and is seeking to maximize his hold on it by amplifying its arbitrary nature.

The problem is that he appears to be ignorant of the fact that the arbitrary exists in dynamic tension with the conventional. Trump not only bulldozes through existing conventions, having razed them to the ground, he does not replace them with new conventions, and in all probability is incapable of doing so. After all, it takes a truly great leader, like Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to accomplish that sort of thing.

It might be argued that the dynamic tension between the arbitrary and the conventional became unbalanced some time ago, leaning too far on the side of the conventional, and therefore biased toward stasis rather than change. But Trump, in shifting the balance in the other direction, threatens to go too far, and as conventions are eliminated, he moves closer and closer to destroying the symbolic order that keeps our society together. The result could be anarchy. Certainly, as the symbolic order is undermined, power will give way to violence.

Ironically, the very device that Trump uses to try to demonstrate his power may ultimately result in its evaporation. And as much as many of us would like to see that happen to Trump, I think we have to be aware that he may take our entire society with him on the way down.

Am I saying this purely to spread some doom and gloom all around? No, not really. Because if we understand what is going on, we can think of what we need to do. In this case, it is not enough to expect things to spring back to normal once Trump is gone. As much as the American experiment has proved to be resilient, permanent damage has been done, and this should not be, cannot be ignored.

Whoever follows Trump will have to pick up the pieces and put them back together again. Whoever follows him will have to re-establish conventions, not expect them to be restored on their own. Whoever follows him will need to establish new conventions as well, a tall order and an enormous opportunity. We will need someone on the order of a Lincoln or a Roosevelt at that time. For now, we can only pray that we get someone like that when the time comes. And that the time will come sooner, rather than later.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

What is 'Medium' & Why is It the Message?

Back in April, I posted one of the outcomes of my visit to Saint Mary's College of California in March of last year: If Not A Then E (Studio Version), featuring a video that was produced there based on my PowerPoint presentation, with my recorded voiceover.

So, as part of my visit, which by the way was as a Roy E. and Patricia Disney Forum Fellow, I also delivered a public lecture, entitled "What We Mean By 'Medium' (And Why it is the Message)". It's similar to talks I've given before, and after, but the addition of PowerPoint makes a bit a different than some. And of course, there's also the introduction given by my good friend and fellow media ecologist, Ed Tywoniak, Professor of Communication at Saint Mary's. And a Q&A that followed, those are always unique forms of improvisation.

So anyway, for whatever it may be worth, here's the recording of my address, recorded in beautiful Moraga, California, on March 14th of 2017.

We also did an interview while I was out there, and maybe I'll share that as well in a future post. Maybe. We'll just have to see... 

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Prophet Einstein

So, it's about time I shared my op-ed which was published on March 9th in the Jewish Standard. This was one I had in mind to do for a long time now, and finally got around to do it. Significantly, and appropriately, it finally turned out that the timing was right. The title it was published under was, Seven Reasons Why Albert Einstein is a Prophet, and as you may recall, I have been willing to include Einstein within the field of media ecology, which is to say as a media ecologist, notably in my book Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study.

Of course, that's a minor point here, my argument being more theological and philosophical. For what it's worth, here it is:

The number 139 is not one we are likely to pay attention to, so this anniversary may not get a great deal of attention. We tend to sit up and take notice when the anniversary is a multiple of 100, or 50, or 10, or even 5.

At the very least, we have a psychological bent toward even numbers, and 139 is decidedly odd. But if Einstein were still with us, he might point out that 139 is more than odd; that it is, in fact, a prime number, which makes it quite significant in its own right. He also no doubt would point to the arbitrary nature of anniversaries, and of calendars for that matter. Einstein’s date of birth on the Hebrew calendar was the 19th of Adar in the year 5639. This year, Adar 19 corresponded to March 6, last year it was March 17, next year is a leap year so it will be February 24 for Adar 1, and March 26 for Adar 2.

I suspect that the differences between the solar calendar of secular society and the lunar calendar of Jewish tradition had some influence on Einstein’s thinking. After all, when we say, for example, that Chanukah is coming late in a given year, it is just as true to say that Christmas and New Year’s are early. The experience of living with two so very different calendars could not help but point to the relativity of time.

And as we remember Einstein, we do so, along with the rest of the world, for his contributions to science, as the recipient of the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics, and the person named in 1999 as Time magazine’s Person of the Century. More than anyone else, Einstein was the person responsible for the paradigm shift in science that replaced Newton’s mechanistic view of the universe with a relativistic understanding of space and time.

And we also remember him as an especially noteworthy member of the Jewish people, one of our many gifts to the world, a prime example of what we sometimes refer to as yiddishe kop, intelligence born out of a tradition of literacy and learning, one in which teachers and sages are seen as heroic. And we may also recall that as a Jew, Einstein was forced to flee Nazi Germany as a refugee, and that he was a supporter of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel.


We do not remember Einstein in a religious context, however; he was not a rabbi or talmudic scholar or theologian. I want to suggest, however, that we should remember him as a prophet. Admittedly, in our tradition we consider the age of the prophets to have ended long ago, but we cannot rule out the possibility of modern prophets altogether. And while we would tend to be suspicious of anyone claiming to be a prophet today, Einstein never made any such claim, so he cannot be rejected as a false prophet.

But I do think a case can be made, and I hope you will consider the possibility as I put forth seven reasons for naming Albert Einstein as a modern-day prophet.

1. Einstein’s name has become synonymous with genius. We typically say that a given individual “is” a genius, but everyone who truly fits the description will more accurately refer to “a stroke of genius” in the sense of something coming from outside of themselves. The word “genius” originates from ancient Rome, and refers to a guiding spirit or deity, a supernatural source, like a guardian angel. (Prophets are the recipients of divine revelation, some form of communication, or we may call it inspiration, which literally means, “to breathe into,” which is how God brings Adam to life in the Book of Genesis.)

2. As a teenager, Einstein imagined himself chasing after a beam of light, which led to his understanding that light cannot be slowed or stopped, that the speed of light is constant, and that it is time, instead, that must vary. This thought experiment was the foundation that led to his special theory of relativity. Other thought experiments followed, notably the difference in what we  would observe when standing on a train vs. standing on a platform as bolts of lightning strike the train. (Prophets are known to receive revelation via visions, as in Jacob’s ladder, Joseph’s dreams, the chariot of fire that appeared to Elijah, and Ezekiel’s wheel within a wheel.)


3. One of Einstein’s most significant achievements was determining the nature of light as consisting of quanta, aka photons, and that light has a dual nature, as both waves and particles. Clearly, he had a unique relationship to the phenomenon of light. (Prophets are closely associated with light and enlightenment, Genesis famously says that light was the first of God’s creations, Moses has a halo when he descends from Mount Sinai after speaking to God face-to- face, a direct encounter with the divine countenance that we pray may shine upon us.)

4. Einstein gave us a new way of understanding the universe, of space and time as a single phenomenon, spacetime. (Prophets teach us about the nature of Creation to better understand the Creator, and our place in the world.)


5. Einstein invoked the philosophy of the Enlightenment founder Baruch Spinoza in explaining his own view of a pantheistic God. That is a view that traditionally has been seen as heretical, but is consistent with some approaches to Kabbalah, God as the Ein Sof, and certainly is acceptable within Reform Judaism. Above all, it is a view consistent with science; as Einstein famously remarked, “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” His resistance to the uncertainty principle of quantum theory was famously expressed in the quote, “God does not play dice with the universe,” asserts that Creation is governed by laws that are rational and ultimately discernible, as well as based on an underlying monotheism, as God would have no one to play dice with. (Prophets often have been critics of established religious authority, in favor of a direct encounter with God via nature.)

6. Einstein spoke out for social justice. He did so on behalf of his own people, in opposition to Nazi Germany, and in favor of Zionism and the State of Israel, but also as a strong critic of racism and supporter of the civil rights movement in the United States. He also was quite critical of capitalism, arguing on behalf of socialism and advocating for a democratic world government and pacifism after the conclusion of World War II. (Social justice is one of the primary themes of the Prophets section of the Tanach.)


7. Einstein warned President Roosevelt of the danger of Nazi research into the development of the atomic bomb, leading to the Manhattan Project. He later became an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons. His warnings largely have fallen on deaf ears, at least as far as governments are concerned. In 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists introduced the image of the Doomsday Clock, setting it to seven minutes before midnight. On January 25 of this year, the minute hand was moved up to two minutes before midnight, the closest it has ever been, mainly because of North Korea and our president’s threatening remarks, and not taking into account Putin’s recent statements about Russian nuclear missile capability, and his animated image of the bombardment of Florida. (The biblical prophets issued warnings about the destruction of Israel and Judea, and the name Jeremiah has become synonymous with pronouncements of doom.)


Einstein’s predictions in the realm of physics continue to be supported by astronomical observation and experimental evidence. Perhaps his predictions about society and politics ought to be taken seriously as well?

Why bother arguing for Einstein as a prophet?

Because American culture always has had a strain of anti-intellectualism, one that includes resistance to many aspects of science, notably Darwinian evolution.

Because climate change is at least as great a threat as nuclear war, and is being met with denial, dismissal, or disinterest from significant portions of the population, and all too many in leadership positions.

Because facts and logic are under assault by religious fundamentalists, cynical political opportunists, and corporate executives with eyes only for short term profits.

As Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz makes clear in his recently published book, Paths of the Prophets: The Ethics-Driven Life, our prophetic tradition is of vital importance, one that always has and always will be relevant for us.


Naming Albert Einstein a prophet should not detract from this tradition, but rather enhance it, by adding a dimension that we need now more than ever: the truth that ethics cannot be divorced from an understanding of the world, of reality, in all its complexity, and glory.