Defacing the Currency (How Academia Got Pwned 9)

This is the ninth post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. This will probably become a book. If you'd like to hear about that when it happens, be sure to subscribe.


"Interesting points," you might be thinking, "but why must you speak and act in ways so obviously doomed to get you in trouble?" Am I an earnest but naïve young man, who seriously thought he could act and speak this way without getting fired? Am I trying to become a martyr to win donations of pity and sympathy? Am I a cynical manipulator enacting a Trumpian gambit to gain power, or what?

I could just tell you how I understand myself, but you wouldn't believe me, and you'd be wise not to. We don't always understand ourselves, first of all, and even when we do, we love to lie about ourselves.

All I can say is that, whatever it is I am doing right now, it's something I've done at least three times before in my life. A few stories about how this particular political-behavioral pattern has recurred periodically throughout my life should be enough to assure you that — whatever I am doing — it is no opportunistic ploy or gimmick. In no way does this guarantee the goodness of my life choices: it could very well be a consistently perverse, pathological thread in my life. But if this thread turns out pathological, I am sure as hell not going to let anyone think it's merely a short-term, opportunistic paroxysm of pathology. No sir.

I will tell you the story of my life, but it will take a while, because it starts in Ancient Greece.

I am engaged in what the Ancient Cynics called “defacing the currency.” There is a whole secret history of this practice through the ages, which I can give you if/when these posts get compiled into a book. For now I just want to give you the basic schema of this strange operation. The phrase is most famously associated with Diogenes of Sinope, and the practice is understood as something akin to killing false idols, or altering widely held social values, especially those that are false or hypocritical, and typically through some kind of transgressive behavior. Otherwise the idea remains poorly understood in academic philosophy — when it is even considered a philosophical idea, which is rare. The concept is even less understood by social scientists — when it is even considered as a political mechanism, which is never, as far as I know. Well, there is this (shameless self-citation).

“Defacing the currency” is a type of political action: a particular set of individual-level behaviors, which under certain conditions, produce predictable society-level consequences. Defacing the currency is a demonstrable, and replicable tactic for concretely overthrowing institutions. One act of defacing the currency does not necessarily overthrow an institution, of course. Rather, defacing the currency is a tactic that produces real empirical effects tending toward the actual overthrow of institutions.

Here’s how it seems to work.

Step 1: Invest in a group of people, genuinely, wholeheartedly. The concept of social capital is useful here, for investing in a group means you are growing your social capital in that group. If all you’re doing is looking for social capital, that is not genuinely investing in the group, which will reveal itself, and then you won’t gain social capital. But if you are genuinely committed to the group, unconditional on the instrumental value of your social capital (i.e. what you can get or do with it outside of immanently enjoying it), ironically this gets you the most social capital. Why exactly things work this way must remain somewhat mysterious for now, but as far as I can tell this is a general and real empirical phenomenon.

Step 2: After you have accumulated social capital, performatively demonstrate a lie that the group tells itself. All groups tell themselves lies, for the in-group cannot be different from the out-group without at least some hidden fiction somewhere (in the words of E. E. Schattschneider, “organization is the mobilization of bias”). You can’t just speak the lie to the group, because talk is cheap. Game theory shows that cheap signals are uninformative. In practice, “uninformative signals” are signals that fail to move bodies. Cheap talk leaves things unmoved, whereas costly signals have the strange property of altering the state of the world, and therefore altering behaviors, whether people like it or not.

Step 3. The consequences. The results will depend on a few variable magnitudes, but we’ll focus on two. First, how much social capital did the actor accrue in Step 1? Two, how impressive was the performance? By impressive I mean some weighted function of how big and deep were the lies it revealed, and how grandiose, costly, and aesthetically forceful was the performative activity? As the actor’s initial store of social capital increases, and as the performative magnitude increases, the result is increasingly likely to deface the currency.The implication of a defaced currency is that the truly operating norms, predicated to some degree on lies, become less effectively operative. Their empirical, operating reality decreases, potentially to the point of vanishing. In short, “defacing the currency” is the only theoretically and empirically sophisticated form of protest behavior worthy of normatively positive adjectives such as “progressive,” “emancipatory,” etc., that is known to history (as far as I can see). But in any given case, to any bystander, it just looks like some crazy asshole shitting on a stage. Diogenes of Sinope literally shat on a stage at the Isthmian games, by the way. I have a post in my drafts that will tell this story later.

I know what you’re thinking, what could this possibly have to do with me? “Didn’t you just get popped doing drugs and calling people retards? How dare you place yourself in some illustrious history of subversive philosophers and revolutionaries! You can’t just do that, you have to, like, publish in New Left Review ten times at least. You can’t just become a significant revolutionary, how criminally narcissistic can a person be? A publisher will never give its stamp of truth to such delusions of grandeur…”

Oh but I do dare, I am so arrogant, and criminally narcissistic, disgustingly so, as most intellectuals are, and no publisher should or could ever tolerate it, except that I am the publisher. I am indeed participating in a grand history, though I would be the first to admit I am only a minor and recently enlisted combatant in this millennia-long war on the world. All that is new with me, perhaps, is the degree of engineering transparency with which I am conducting these campaigns — or rather, with which these campaigns are conducting me.

Soon I'll tell you how I've done this all before, on a few different occasions.