The capacity of a dialogue to produce action-guiding consensus is dependent on the interpersonal structures that underpin it. Dysfunctional public discourse is a product of the reward systems built into our public spaces — often via the implementations of technical platforms — which undermine our capacity to establish the required interpersonal bonds. In practice, thought is always overtaken by self-promotion. This is not the fault of individuals. Its solution lies not in self-development or in the cultivation of new sensibilities, but in the engineering of new public spaces.
Table of Contents
– Mutual Recognition
– Conversation and Consensus
– Failures of Recognition
– The Social Logic of Strategic Alliance
– Recognition and Technical Mediation
– Excursus: A Quick Theory of Right Wing Success
– Designing Consensus
– Why This is Difficult
In my last post I was quite down on metamodernism, though happily it provoked some fruitful discussion. In this one I’ll pick up the task of turning those critical threads in a more constructive direction, beginning with questions of discourse, consensus, and their role in the foundations of collective agency.
One of my primary targets in that post was multi-perspectivalism, the epistemological framework often adopted — whether explicitly or implicitly — by politically motivated strands of metamodernism. Multi-perspectivalism tries to make a virtue of oscillation across (or juxtaposition of) contradiction. I argued that while this framework claims to facilitate synthesis across divergent views, it ultimately flattens the productive tensions between them, and therefore achieves no such thing. Here I will consider a different approach to synthetic discourse, by which I mean conversation that seeks convergence across different and perhaps incommensurable viewpoints. Since all processes of conceptual change are implicated in this definition, this concerns everything from the resolution of interpersonal conflict to the emergence of new animating social narratives and visions of future.
At the heart of this approach is the concept of mutual recognition. This idea has its origins in Hegel, coming from a thread of argument in the Phenomenology of Spirit sometimes referred to as the “dialectics of recognition.”¹ I’ll be drawing on an interpretation given by Robert Brandom in his recent book on the Phenomenology²— that said, my goals here concern practice rather than scholarship, and I’ll make no particular efforts at exegesis or close referencing. Neither Hegel nor Brandom will be mentioned again in the main body of this post. As I hope will become apparent, far from being some obscure piece of philosophical arcana, mutual recognition is something familiar to all of us.
The segue to mutual recognition begins from the observation that the multi-perspectivalist appears to have answered the wrong question. It is as if they had seen a dysfunctional public conversation and, determined to be the change they want to see in the world, responded by trying to simulate the ideal conversation in their own head. But to make this move is to have already done something rather strange — it is to have treated the problem as if it were a one-subject problem, one whose global solution depends on each of us solving it locally. Unsurprisingly, this path nearly always leads to exotic logic and/or revisionary theories of truth. Perhaps there is value in this approach, but is this really the problem we need to solve? I don’t think so. What we want to know, surely, is how to have good conversations — public ones in particular. If we understand this, perhaps we’ll also understand why this is so difficult these days. The point is that this is a multi-subject problem, and there is no particular reason to believe that it will require of individuals anything more outlandish than an ability to change their mind.
To insist on treating this as a multi-subject problem is to move the focus away from the logical relationships between beliefs, and onto the social relationships between people in discursive contexts. The aim is to think about synthetic discourse by thinking about its interpersonal basis. Mutual recognition arises when considering questions like: what even is a discursive space? Pursuing questions like these can provide insights into how and why these spaces have become dysfunctional.
Developing this account will provide what I hope is a somewhat different diagnosis of why public conversation commonly fails, and how it might succeed. In later sections I’ll apply these ideas to the institutional — and increasingly technical — platforms on which contemporary public life is staged. I’ll argue that the value systems built into many of these spaces are incapable of supporting the interpersonal relations required by synthetic discourse, and therefore radically undermine it. This line of thought suggests failures of public conversation have more to do with deficiencies in the underlying social technology than deficiencies in the people using them. This thought will lead to some general suggestions about how to rebuild the conditions of collective agency.
To recognise someone is to treat them in a certain way: it is to acknowledge their authority to place demands on you. To recognise is to do something, not to feel or believe something — it is a gesture made through concrete actions. When it is said that a true friend will let you know when you’re being an asshole, this expresses a recognitive sentiment. But recognition need not imply familiarity or closeness. When you wander out of the desert looking haggard and the townsfolk provide you with meal and water but keep a wary distance, this is also recognition.
Broadly speaking, to recognise someone is to acknowledge their presence in a shared social space. When the space is discursive, this means acknowledging the authority of your interlocutor to hold you accountable to the commitments you have taken upon yourself. To make a claim is to take on an epistemic commitment; to recognise the other is to acknowledge their authority to request justifications for your claims. This acknowledgement is implicit in the performance of certain actions, for instance responding in good faith. Conversely, recognition can be withheld by ignoring the request, or by being all sneaky and evasive.
Mutual recognition is when two people recognise one another, symmetrically and non-hierarchically. This is a dyadic interpersonal structure in which authority is always matched by a corresponding responsibility. In a relationship structured by mutual recognition, one’s authority to hold the other to account is inseparable from one’s responsibility to answer to one’s own commitments in turn. Generalising the dyad to larger groups, we can imagine an entire recognitive community standing in relations of mutual recognition to one another.
Mutual recognition always contains a dimension of sacrifice, at least in potential. By acknowledging the other’s authority to place demands on you, you implicitly acknowledge that your self-interest may sometimes be overridden. This becomes vivid in extreme cases, where mutual recognition can take the form of a ritual conflict. One example is the aristocratic institution of the duel. Part of what it meant to be a member of the nobility was to acknowledge the right of other nobles to challenge you to a duel under specific, highly codified conditions. A peasant could not challenge a noble — if they did the noble had no obligation to accept (indeed, it would bring them dishonour to do so). But to refuse a challenge from another noble was unthinkable, to commit a kind of class suicide. To refuse the challenge would be to show not only that you were no longer a noble, but that you never had been. Mutual recognition here takes the form of an honour code in which individuals bind themselves (via their practical acknowledgement of a duty to accept their opponent’s challenge) to courses of action that may diverge wildly from their material self-interest, even to the point of death.³
Conversation and Consensus
What does mutual recognition have to do with consensus process? I’ll start by considering the example of a group of friends deciding on a restaurant — the banal simplicity of this situation will help to illustrate the dynamics in question, and also to anchor mutual recognition in everyday experience.
Consider two ways in which this decision process can fail:
- Everyone has their own unshakeably strong preference about where to eat and won’t budge. Deliberation gets nowhere, because no-one is willing to take other people’s preferences into account.
- No-one voices any preferences at all. Everyone hangs around waiting for someone else to make a decision for them, and the conversation never even gets off the ground.
These two failures of group decision making correspond to what in other contexts are sometimes called “reductive individualism” and “reductive collectivism,” respectively. In terms of recognition, what is at issue is the authority group members grant to one another’s preferences to shape group action. In the case of reductive individualism, members claim authority for their own preferences without recognising it in others. In the case of reductive collectivism, members refuse to recognise their own constitutive role in the group process, effectively shrugging off both the authority and responsibility of decision making.
As we all know, the decision process works perfectly well when group members adopt a symmetric authority structure — each both shouldering some of the decision labour by providing input preferences and taking the preferences of others into account (in practice by revising or suspending their own as dialogue unfolds). Once these conditions are met, the deliberation can quickly converge on a consensus. Even in this simple example we begin to see how mutual recognition charts a middle path between the twin inertias of reductive individualism and reductive collectivism.
In the case of general dialogue the situation is somewhat more complicated. In a discursive context, mutual recognition is established when you both actively hold your interlocutor to (what you take to be) their epistemic commitments, and practically acknowledge their authority to hold you to your own. A common phrase capturing this whole package is charitable interpretation.
In good disagreements there are rarely any gotcha moments or major u-turns. Mostly they revolve around reciprocal interpretation — while there may be concessions and revisions, these are typically small and peripheral. In practice, exercising the principle of charity means performing interpretive labour to maximise the coherence of an interlocutor’s position with your own. This is to progressively attribute and revise auxiliary beliefs and interpretive hypotheses so as to maximise the distribution of truth over the core commitments of both views.⁴ Successful dialogue is primarily a process of creative interpretation — when it converges on agreement it does not simply converge on a new agreement, but often on the sense that agreement had been there all along, albeit it in latent form.⁵ This is the form convergence takes when grounded in mutual recognition.
It’s worth contrasting this with the recommendations made by multi-perspectivalism. On this view, when confronted with a perspective incommensurable with your own, you should suspend commitment to your own position in order to temporarily inhabit that of the other. While seemingly inclusive at its surface, on closer inspection this can be seen to bypass the labour of interpretation. You can only inhabit the other’s position if you already know what they mean, and interpretation is only possible against a constellation of background beliefs. In claiming to suspend their own beliefs to inhabit those of the other, the multi-perspectivalist achieves little more than to mask their own beliefs — specifically, those implied in their interpretation of the other. But to mask is to make unavailable for challenge, and this is a failure of recognition: it is to fail to acknowledge the authority of the other to dispute your interpretation of what they mean. Despite its egalitarian pretences, multi-perspectivalism betrays a subtle imperialism in its tacit monopolisation of the authority of interpretation.⁶
Failures of Recognition
There are many things in life we tend to think of in terms of feelings, but which can be also be looked at through the lens of recognition. To do so is to shift register from internal state to interpersonal function. Anger implies recognition, for example. It only makes sense to be angry at someone you recognise, someone with whom you share social space — in this sense, anger is often a demand for recognition in return. In contrast, to hold someone in contempt is to withhold recognition. You know that phrase, haters gonna hate? The sentiment expressed by this is something like: you have no obligation to respond to other people’s anger (or resentment). While there are no doubt legit applications of this, read as a piece of all-purpose social know-how it starts to look like: don’t respond to anger with anger, respond to anger with contempt. From the point of view of mutual recognition, this doesn’t look like much of an improvement. What it looks like is a recommendation to shear interpersonal space in half rather than do work to maintain it.
It is often said that we have lost our connection with nature. This seems undeniable, but what is odd is that it is often interpreted in an affective or aesthetic pitch, as if the problem is that we no longer have the right feelings when we look at trees. This kind of interpretation suggests the solution lies in the cultivation of our internal states, in self-development as response to a spiritual deficit. But if we interpret ‘connection’ in terms of recognition, internal states start to seem far less relevant. From this perspective, what we have lost is our collective ability to acknowledge relations of reciprocal obligation with the natural world — with all the tensions, annoyances and antagonisms that come with them. Odysseus raging at Poseidon may be a more appropriate image than the Bodhisattva meditating in front of the lotus tree.
As we have seen, mutual recognition can break down in two ways: either someone tries to exercise authority without acknowledging the corresponding responsibility, or they disavow authority altogether. Arguing in bad faith is an example of the first — criticising (authority) without charity (responsibility). An example of the second is when, on being confronted about something they have done wrong, the accused replies “oh yes I know I did that I’m such an awful person I guess that’s just how I am” but never actually apologises. Broadly speaking, a failure of recognition corresponds to some version of what we typically think of as objectification. In the first kind of failure one implicitly objectifies the other; in the second one objectifies oneself — both are ways of evading the social labour demanded by mutual recognition.
This brings us to a third failure of mutual recognition, one with special relevance for what follows. This is the structure of strategic alliance. Other names for it could be “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” or “mutual objectification.” I am referring of course to contractually structured reciprocal self-interest. This is similar to mutual recognition in certain respects: as a symmetric structure it is non-hierarchical, and it involves a bi-directional attribution of authority. But the nature of this “authority” differs. Whereas in mutual recognition the authority structure is unconditional, in strategic alliance it is caveated. In this case, my acknowledgement of your authority to dictate my action is conditional on my judgement that it will provide me with extractable value.
Returning to the restaurant example, strategic alliance is like if everyone is trying to decide on a restaurant not because they are friends and want to have dinner together, but because they all want a chic Instagram photo to show they were out having dinner with friends. This kind of motivation structure is perfectly capable of producing consensus — in fact it often makes it easier, because working out what restaurant looks disposably good as an image backdrop is easier than navigating real relationships. And if it turns out it isn’t, no matter — you don’t have social ties to these people so you can always just exit the situation and go attach yourself to another Instagram dinner club, or whatever this horrorshow is. I am no doubt labouring this point — we all know the difference between mutual recognition and strategic alliance: it is just the difference between a social tie and a professional tie.
The Social Logic of Strategic Alliance
Mutual recognition and strategic alliance are often conflated, but there are crucial differences in their significance for social reasoning and cooperation. If I understand myself to be in a strategic alliance with someone, then I know they will join me in cooperative action only to the extent they judge their self-interest will be served in doing so. This knowledge has objective significance for my own reasoning about how much risk and labour to front.
This becomes extremely important in situations where cooperative action is both high cost and high stakes, for example in struggle against a malignant status quo, or in collective response to existential threat. What is often a stark cost-benefit analysis when viewed at a collective level is plagued by indeterminacy when approached from the perspective of individual investment and value extraction. This makes it extremely difficult for a decision process grounded on strategic alliance to reach a robust, action-guiding consensus in these scenarios. This problem does not arise when the process is grounded on mutual recognition, because the unconditional structure of authority means the decision process is a group decision process, full stop — i.e. the collective deliberation is not being funnelled through a second layer in which individuals deliberate about how much value they can personally extract from the collective action.
The distinction can be made explicit in game theoretic terms: two people in a relationship of strategic alliance will always defect in a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma, while those in mutual recognition will cooperate. A strategic alliance always involves distinct self-interested agents whose preferences may happen to be in alignment — one of the most important lessons we have learned from game theory is that this is insufficient to secure cooperation in a wide class of collective action problems, even when it is in everyone’s self-interest to cooperate.⁷ In practice, what this means is that in many cases (often the ones that count) strategic alliance can produce a fragile consensus at best, one which may inflate quickly due to relatively low initial buy in but is liable to burst, much like a speculative bubble.
Mutual recognition requires something else, namely that participating individuals acknowledge the authority of the consensus to potentially override their self-interest. It is this feature which allows a recognitive community to operate as a single agent, reasoning as a unified “we” rather than a mediated aggregation of “I”s. A consensus underpinned by mutual recognition requires more initial labour from individuals, because it must first produce the social space in which deliberation occurs (to put it differently, they must first win one another’s trust). This may make it slower to form, but in the end it is far more robust, since it does not hang together on the basis of a speculative gamble. Over the long-term, these are really the only processes that can generate robust consensus.
There’s a standard Marxist line of argument which can be rephrased in these terms, which goes like this. The primary effect of the capitalist mode of production is the gradual replacement of social ties based on mutual recognition with professional ties based on strategic alliance. Since social ties require considerably more labour to produce, this process is exothermic: turning all that socially locked-in labour into extractable value effectively releases it as energy, making it available for redirection into commodity production. This results in a huge increase in both material wealth and social alienation. A further effect of the alienation is the emergence of entirely new kinds of consumer demand which drive even more commodity production, locking the whole process onto an accelerating loop.
Whether or not one agrees with Marxists about its origins, it is undeniable that the replacement of bonds based on mutual recognition with those based on strategic alliance is a familiar feature of technological modernity. When people talk about “the professionalisation of friendship,” this is what they mean. The tendency of online dating towards transactional encounters is an obvious example, as are the myriad other ways in which social existence has been gamified, not to mention the marketisation of literally everything. In a certain sense all of this can be quite liberating — the things they provide have many surface similarities to the things they replace, and they remove much of the social labour and lingering obligation. On the downside they can be fleeting, ephemeral, and unstable. But when all of your energy has always already been absorbed by the daily grind, perhaps that’s not such a bad deal?
Recognition and Technical Mediation
I’ve outlined two symmetrical interpersonal structures, and how they can facilitate or inhibit the synthesis of collective will. Mutual recognition is required for robust group reasoning, but is costly in social labour. Strategic alliance is seductive in that it provides a way to cheaply and rapidly bind something like collective will, but one which is ultimately too fragile to follow through on anything that works against the existing grain — for instance political struggle or systems change.
With these ideas in place, it becomes possible to give a diagnosis of contemporary inertia which does not depend on positing some kind of spiritual or developmental deficiency in the general population. This diagnosis claims instead that mutual recognition is impossible within contemporary public spaces. If so, then no improvements in individual virtue will ever shift the inertia.
The contention here is that the formal architecture of our public spaces fundamentally undercuts collective agency. It does this, I want to suggest, by systematically nudging all sincere attempts at mutual recognition towards strategic alliance. As individuals trying to communicate within this space we experience this as a kind of devil’s bargain: the only way to gain visibility is by adopting practices and attitudes which are strategic rather than recognitive. In practice, to get yourself into public view you have to subject yourself to some process of professionalisation, or what could perhaps better be termed storification. But this makes it very difficult for anyone to relate to you as anything other than a professional (a story, a personality, a producer of reliably on-brand content, etc). We automatically get cast in producer-consumer relations. It does not matter that these relations are symmetric and reversible — what gets lost in their very form is the possibility of solidarity.
But how can a communications medium do something like this? Surely the way people treat each other is up to them? The key to this point is the realisation that our ability to establish a bond of mutual recognition depends critically on our ability to send credible signals of intent to one another.
It is not enough that I recognise you and you recognise me — I also need to know that you recognise me, to know that you know that I recognise you, to know that you know that I know that you recognise me, and so on. In a physical conversation, all this can be established by as little as eye contact.⁸ This makes a withdrawal of recognition very obvious. To return to an earlier example, I can withdraw my recognition for someone who is asking me to justify my claim by ignoring them. Doing this in a physical context is difficult — I’d probably just get called out, or at least feel the full force of a social norm (not responding in physical space is something which must be done actively).
But on a social media platform (for example) I am always covered by plausible deniability. This is partly due to the privilege often given to the present on the timeline — timeline based apps retain no meaningful sense of public memory, with content fading rapidly into an indeterminate past. Individuals may remember, but in the absence of any way of stably representing it publicly the memory never enters common knowledge, and this is sufficient for past commitments to be ignored with plausible deniability. Here’s the important point about this: the problem with a systemic presence of plausible deniability is not that it makes me more likely to exercise it, but that my knowledge that other people could exercise it makes it more difficult for me to interpret anyone’s signals as credible. This introduces a kind of noise into the signalling system which is completely independent of anyone’s intentions.
There are many technical features of social media platforms yielding effects like this. One is the way their reward systems tend to ensure that all publicity is good publicity. The only real currency on social media is visibility, and this can be achieved equally well by pissing people off as by making them happy (not least because publicly pissing one person off is sure to make someone else happy). This incentivises bad faith engagement — knowing this incentive structure is in place makes it harder for me to identify good faith engagement as such, i.e. as a credible signal of recognition. Most subtly (and I believe most importantly), when someone engages positively with something I’ve posted — by sharing it, for instance — I can never quite be sure whether this is a sign of genuine recognition, or whether that person is simply appropriating it for aggregation into their own story. I cannot tell whether they are engaging with it or wearing it. I will probably respond positively in return anyway because, well, I want people to engage with it. But then, assuming the original intention was totally sincere, this person at the other end of the interaction is now in the mirror situation with respect to me. It is intrinsically difficult for us to take each other’s recognitive signals as credible, and this is nudging us into strategic alliance.
Social media provides vivid examples of this phenomenon, but by no means marks the extent of it. These effects are familiar across the public sphere — in news media, politics, publishing, the art world, and so on. We are never talking about a single technology, but always whole ecosystems of platforms, spaces, and institutions. What matters is the way an ecosystem implements its norms of value aggregation. These norms implicitly materialise different structures of interpersonal authority — not by acting on the attitudes of individuals directly, but by affecting everyone’s expectations of one another. This can apply to social roles as much as to digital technologies. The Professional, for example, can be thought of as a social institution which materialises an interpersonal structure of strategic alliance. The scientific peer review system aims to materialise a structure of mutual recognition, though this can be and has been corroded by marketisation.
Almost all public space is now mediated by technologies and institutions with strategic alliance cooked into them at a nuts and bolts level. This makes mutual recognition unstable at best, and systematically undermines the possibility of productive, convergent conversation at large scale. So much for collective agency. This has nothing to do with the sincerity of anyone’s intentions — it is a structural feature of the interaction spaces available to the roles defined by these technologies and institutions (roles like the Professional, the Social Entrepreneur, the User). More specifically, it is a product of the way they fail to represent the distinctions required for signalling credible self-disinterest. We converge on strategic alliance not because we actually are selfish actors, but because it is the only stable strategy in a noisy information environment. In these spaces we are always already professionalised — our mode of appearance to others is as a self-interested actor, regardless of our actual intentions. This is enough to make collective action impossible. Mutual recognition has been deprecated in Human OS 2.021.
Excursus: A Quick Theory of Right Wing Success
Perhaps the most important strategic question for the Left to answer is this one: how did it manage to botch one of the biggest political opportunities of the last half century, namely the financial supernova of 2008? Since then, left wing movements have failed again and again to land any meaningful blows on the status quo. The scraps of vitality that have emerged have come from either the radical fringe or the old guard, and have all fizzled out after an initial surge. Meanwhile populist reactionary movements have both found their way into the White House and forced the UK’s exit from the European Union. How has the Right been successfully disruptive where the Left has floundered?
Here’s a theory based on the argument so far: the capacity of the Right to coordinate action has been directly tied to the dominance of progressive norms in public space, particularly in the younger and more dynamic social media, to which traditional news media have become increasingly ancillary. Since this space is dysfunctional, being excluded from it is a blessing — it has forced reactionaries to talk to each other directly, setting up a patchwork of horizontal and ad hoc communication structures which both support mutual recognition (and therefore robust consensus) and are largely invisible from the perspective of the mainstream.
Progressives have put more energy into leveraging social media and other public platforms to drive primary momentum. This is often extremely successful in the short term, as messages spread with viral efficiency. But as the bubble inflates, signal credibility deteriorates. It rapidly becomes hard to tell whether people are motivated by conviction or clout, and this makes it impossible for sincere individuals to make judgements about how much personal risk and labour to shoulder. Everyone starts accusing each other of being grifters, and the bubble implodes before anything of substance has been achieved. In a final ironic turnabout, the sudden implosion makes it seem like everyone’s conviction really had been feigned all along. Suspicion starts to produce reality. But this has nothing to do with a true lack of primary sincerity — it is a sure outcome of an attempt to coordinate political action within communications spaces with reward structures that systematically undermine the credibility of self-disinterest signals.
If the line of argument I have been pursuing here is right, then the elusiveness of productive dialogue has little to do with people — with some deficiency in their attitudes, skills, or sensibilities — but derives from the fact that mainstream media spaces simply do not support the normative bonds consensus seeking discourse depends on. The practical lesson to be drawn from this is that if we want to achieve a kind of discursive vitality with the capacity to bind collective will, then the first thing we should do is move the conversation to a different medium.
What would such a medium look like? Describing a feature set is fairly straightforward — all mutual recognition requires is a reward structure that supports robust credibility signalling. This is about basic stuff like ensuring that not all publicity is good publicity, i.e. building a reputation system attached to real gains and costs (e.g. a downvote mechanism with visibility implications). This makes it possible to trust that status hierarchies are reflections of competence. Another way of reinforcing this is by ensuring the platform has a sensible representation of temporality — for example, threads which return to the top of a public board as long as anyone is still participating (which is the same for everyone, as opposed to individualised timelines). This makes it harder to avoid criticism by ignoring it. Another is flattening the message hierarchy in conversations, so responses to posts are given the same level of visibility as the thing they respond to. And so on — the point of all this is not to produce good faith impulses that weren’t there already, but, by making the credibility mechanism public and explicit, to make it possible for people who already wanted to engage in good faith to trust that there’s any point in doing so.
Many online spaces with the highest degree of crowd-sourced information integrity work along these or similar lines. The remarkable value of Stack Overflow as a software development resource, for example, has everything to do with the characteristically fierce manner in which standards are policed by community members. In a different area, fascinating work has been done on the evolution of norms among Wikipedia editors. In communities which run their own discussion platforms implemented along these lines, e.g. LessWrong, the quality of dialogue is noticeably better, particularly when it comes to consolidation, convergence, and cumulation. (It is interesting that despite a skew towards pro-market sympathies, rationalists often organise their discursive space as if acting under collectivist, subcultural impulses. Compare this with more outwardly anti-capitalist scenes which nevertheless operate on more business-like content models, and tend to spend more energy producing material which foregrounds personality and optimises for consumability, e.g. podcasts.)
The relationship between reputation systems and discourse integrity is often understood well in particular contexts, but its implications for political struggle in the 21st Century information environment has received far less attention. In all the examples above, conversational integrity is produced by a form of labour which is almost totally absent in more mainstream spaces. This is the labour of canonisation — it involves checking for duplicates, consolidating variant ideas, removing bad content, summarising, and so on. This is a labour of destruction, not creation. Canonisation is an activity which can never be rewarded within media spaces structured by strategic alliance, for the simple reason that it is extremely bad at creating extractable value.
Instead, mainstream spaces operate according to a logic of personal accumulation. If someone comes up with a minor variation on an old idea, they are incentivised to immediately package it up as if it were something unique and immediately place it in circulation as capital — this kind of semiotic splintering undermines its capacity to enter into productive tension with rival ideas. People cite each other’s ideas constantly but without interpreting them deeply or consolidating their differences, because that requires a kind of respectful adversity which works against the spirit of both mutual promotion (by being too adversarial) and performative antagonism (by being too respectful). In this environment a conversation can never get anywhere, because the moment a new twist is introduced it bifurcates into a new conversation. There is a structural incentive to keep starting new conversations, which ensures that none can ever finish.
It is sometimes said that we are faced with a meaning crisis. Perhaps this is true, but what kind of crisis could this be? If it means that there is a lack of meaning in the world, then its solution would depend on finding ways to create new meaning, new symbols and stories. But this can’t be right. Wander into any urban centre, look on any screen, any artificial surface — we are living in the most symbolically saturated environment there has ever been. If there is a meaning crisis, then it seems to be one born not of a lack but an excess, an over-abundance of meanings which makes deciding which ones to share impossible. If this is the case then the solution will lie not in the production of meaning, but — paradoxically — in its destruction.
Why This is Difficult
I began this post asking what it is that makes a conversation capable of convergence. I’ve argued that synthetic dialogue depends for its interpersonal basis on a structure of mutual recognition, which is rendered systematically unstable in most contemporary media and institutional spaces. A common though often unspoken assumption is that the failure of public dialogue stems from a failure of the individuals participating in it. Against this I’ve argued (in a somewhat McLuhanite vein) that the failure is necessitated by the formal structure of public space itself. But even if the medium really is the message, this need not be read as a fatalistic conclusion — it simply suggests that we would do better to seek political agency in our choice of medium than in our production and distribution of messages.¹⁰ Recovering the conditions of collective agency is, I would suggest, a matter of redirecting discursive energy away from mainstream media and into communications spaces grounded on mutual recognition. If public space itself is compromised, the solution is to rebuild it in patchwork from the ground up.
This is a call for collective action, and as such it faces some specific difficulties. It would require individuals to direct their labour away from spaces where they can expect a direct return in extractable value to those in which it it will get locked into specific community contexts, and likely be invisible from outside them. The kind of value created by this activity will necessarily have very low liquidity, requiring people to give up a lot of publicly tradeable clout. This is hard not because people are narrowly self-interested, but because it is a coordination problem — many people need to act at the same time because it is pointless to do so alone, no matter how noble the intention. It is much easier to start a podcast, because it is easy to get people to come on a podcast — every time they do they get a little piece of pre-validated content to aggregate into their own story.
Collective action requires more than individuals with conviction: it also requires individuals who are confident of one another’s conviction. But this confidence is precisely what is undermined by our noisy information environment. When we look out into our world for potential collaborators what we find is primarily a load of people producing content — an activity which can be plausibly interpreted as motivated by either self-interest or by conviction. What they are saying may be all sparkles and paradigm shifts, but what they are doing is always ambiguous (and couldn’t not be). In almost all cases it is impossible to work out where the bottom line really is, i.e. which would win out if self-interest and conviction came into conflict. But as an individual prepared to front risk and labour for collective action, this is the answer you need. What you need is a credible signal that others are prepared to join you in suspending present self-interest for the sake of a collective long-game. And this is the signal you will never receive, whether or not anyone is sending it.
It seems we’re faced with a paradox: fixing a dysfunctional public sphere is a coordination problem, but since this is the very communications space we use to coordinate action, the dysfunction undermines its own correction. The breakdown of public dialogue is also a breakdown in our ability to fix it. The problem creates its own meta-problem.
As individuals, the experience of being caught in this net is disorienting. The knowledge that individual action is futile coincides with the feeling that collective action is impossible, a meta-critical loop forever bouncing back and forth between a reductive individualism powerless before the magnitude of global forces, and a hopelessly abstract collectivism which fails to index any concrete community. What we’d really like to know is which actions we should take as individuals to help create the conditions for collective action. This is a practical paradox — once its source has been understood as a failure of recognitive signal credibility, some new ways of unravelling it begin to suggest themselves. Exploring them will be the subject of the next post.
- Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit. The dialectics of recognition forms the central line of argument in the Self-Consciousness chapters.
- Robert Brandom, A Spirit of Trust. It’s worth saying that it has been contested whether Brandom is faithful to Hegel’s intentions, or whether he uses Hegel more as a proxy for his own views (see e.g. Stephen Houlgate’s review). This dispute is not particularly relevant to points made in this post, so I’ll bracket it.
- See also Brandom’s discussion of the samurai code of Bushido in A Spirit of Trust, Chapter 8. The Structure of Desire and Recognition: Self-Consciousness and Self-Constitution. See my note on this chapter for a quick summary.
- The central importance of the principle of charity is emphasised in Donald Davidson’s philosophy of language. For Davidson, charitable interpretation is much more than a matter of etiquette — since it is only possible, he held, to understand what someone means by attributing mostly true beliefs to them, charitable interpretation must in fact be understood as a transcendental condition of the possibility of communication.
- This odd temporal effect, in which the integration of the new and reinterpretation of the old collapse into one another, is characteristic of what Brandom calls recollective rationality — a discursive activity he understands as central to Hegel’s dialectics.
- Richard Rorty has an interesting discussion of this point in Solidarity, Contingency, and Irony, which I gloss at the beginning of this note.
- For an introduction to the prisoner’s dilemma you could do far worse than read Scott Alexander’s.
- See Michael Chwe’s excellent book on common knowledge, Rational Ritual.
- Marshall McLuhan’s famous slogan, as well as others making similar points — such as Audre Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” or Jean Baudrillard’s insinuation that all agency lies with the code — are often accused of an overly pessimistic technological determinism. But this is not right. None of these statements preclude human agency, they merely suggest that it may lie somewhere other than where we expect it.
- The whole argument of the post could be put like this: the public sphere is a panopticon; we need it to be a Stone Henge. This is a technical problem, and has nothing to do with spirituality or self-development. We should start by building micro-henges then bootstrap up to bigger ones. When The Stoa claims to be a “digital campfire,” this kind of sentiment seems to be what is being expressed. But saying it is not the same as doing it — a campfire is, in the first instance, a circle that points inwards. To speak around a campfire is to speak to and for those who are around it with you, a mode of speech which can fully mobilise shared context and implicit knowledge, a speech indexed to a concrete audience. But to speak in a Zoom call destined for Youtube is to do something radically different: it is to speak to and for an abstract audience, a speech with another set of demands, assumptions, and capacities. The difference is not between private and public, but between a discourse produced for those who participate in it and a discourse produced for public consumption. The first is a campfire; the second is an aquarium.