The Joshua and Genesis discourses
page 33 knowing capitalism, thrift
Discourses are metalanguages that instruct people how to live as people.
They are best represented as great rivers of communication, performances
propelled into movement by talk and text, enflamed by technologies like books, visual images, and other ‘media’, guided by procedures like rules and styles, and crowned by significant effects like particular subject positions or emotional states which establish the cultural importance of a discourse at gut level, and allow it to kick in (Gumbrecht and Pfeiffer, 1994; Thrift, 1996b).
One of the prevalent discourses in western intellectual cultures of the
last two thousand years, a discourse which has waxed and waned and which has adjusted to historical custom but which still holds to a series of central tenets, has been what Jowitt (1992) calls the ‘Joshua discourse’.
This is a discourse that is founded on the idea of transcendental rationality, on the notion of a single, correct, God’s-eye view of reason which transcends (goes beyond) the way human beings (or indeed any other kinds of things) think, and which imparts the idea of a world that is ‘centrally organized, rigidly bounded, and hysterically concerned with impenetrable boundaries’ (1992, p. 306). This discourse usually involves a series of linked and self-supporting tenets (Lakoff, 1987), such as that:
• The mind is independent of the body; reason is a disembodied phenomenon.
• Emotion has no conceptual content but is a pure force.
• Meaning is based on truth and reference; it concerns the relationship between symbols which represent things in the real world. Symbols are meaningless in themselves and only get their meaning by virtue of their correspondence to things in the world.
• The categories we use are independent of the world, defined only
by the internal characteristics of their members and not by the nature of the people doing the categorizing.
But, beginning in the 1940s and 1950s with the work of philosophers like
Austin, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, the Joshua discourse began to
retreat. Further, more recent batterings by other intellectual-practical
communities like cognitive scientists, feminists and social theorists have
produced something close to a rout.
So a new discourse has begun to take hold, a discourse which challenges the idea that a God’s-eye view of reason is possible. There are, instead, many rationalities, and these rationalities are all:
• embodied, relying on our bodily natures
• going to engage the emotions, since feeling is conceptualized and
conceptualization always involves feeling
• based on a notion of meaning as concerning symbols which are
constitutive of the world and not just mirrors of it – which are, in fact, imaginative processes that rely on our capacity to produce images, to store knowledge of particular levels of complexity, and to communicate (Putnam, 1981)
• reliant on categories that are not independent of the world but are defined by upgraded processes (like metaphor, metonymy and mental imaging) which mean that there can be no objectively correct description of reality (this does not, of course, mean that there is no objective world, only that we have no privileged access to it from some external viewpoint).
These tenets (Lakoff, 1987) lead to a view of the world that is very different from the purified and purifying Joshua discourse, which we might call, after Jowitt (1992) and Serres (1995a), the ‘Genesis discourse’. It is a view of the world in which ‘borders are no longer of fundamental importance; territorial, ideological and issue boundaries are attenuated, unclear, and confusing’ (Jowitt, 1992, p. 307). It is a view of the world in which knowledge has become an archipelago of islands of epistemic stability in a sea of disorder, fluctuations, noise, randomness and chaos.
Whereas in the Joshua discourse order is the rule and disorder is the exception, in the Genesis discourse disorder is the rule and order the exception and, as a result, ‘what becomes more interesting are the transitions and bifurcations, the long fringes, edges, verges, rims, brims, auras, crenellates, confines … all the shores that lead from one to another, from the sea of disorder to the coral reefs of order’ (Latour, 1987a, pp. 94–5).
Obviously, such a view has a number of consequences, of which two are
particularly significant. First, the favoured epistemological stance is, to use
Wittgenstein’s (1978) feline phrase, ‘not empiricism yet realism’. That may sound like a contradiction in terms but it is, in fact, an argument for a limited but not total form of relativism which holds that individuals understand the same domain of experience in different and inconsistent ways and that this is a necessary condition of knowledge (Diamond, 1991). Since even the most disinterested of analysts is engaged in social projects, any a priori claim to epistemological privilege is impossible.
Second, knowledge is no longer seen as a form of empire-building in which ‘a powerful critique is one that ties, like a bicycle wheel, every point of a periphery to one of the centre through the intermediary of a proxy. At the end holding the centre is tantamount to holding the world’ (Latour, 1987a, p. 90).
At best, knowledge is, in Lakoff’s (1987) phrase, ‘radial’. That is,
central truths are true by virtue of the directness of fit between the preconceptual structure of experience and the conceptual structure in terms of
which the sentence is understood. But most of the sentences we speak and
hear and read and write are not capable of expressing central truths; they are
sentences that contain concepts that are very general or very specific or
abstract or metaphorical or metonymic or display other kinds of ‘indirectness’
relative to the direct structuring of experience. Not that they need to be any
less true, but they aren’t central examples. (1987, p. 297)
Discourses produce power relations. Within them, stories are spun which
legitimate certain kinds of constructs, subject positions, and affective states over others.
The myths and fables of the Joshua discourse were particularly
powerful. Specifically, four of these myths and fables did serious work in
producing a particular kind of world which is now so often called ‘modern’ that we no longer realize the cultural specificity of the description or the strength of the investments we have placed in it.
The first of these myths was an old Enlightenment ‘chestnut’ – the myth of total knowledge.
Somehow – though we don’t have this facility yet – we could get to know
everything that is going on. Every movement of an ant and every rustling of
a leaf could be tracked and explained. Every human culture could be laid
open to inspection and documentation. Every practical skill could be
analysed down to its last detail and then transcended.
This myth was supported by a second, that the world was set up in such a way as to allow this: the world was an ordered, homogeneous, quantitatively different multiplicity. The world was defined by oneness, consistency and integrity which, in turn, acted as an ideal terrain on which purified theoretical orders could operate and permeate.
The third myth was of a material world which could be separated out from the world of the imagination, from the world of symbols and semiotics. There was no sense, therefore, of a world in which materials are interactively constituted, in which ‘objects, entities, actors, processes
– all are semiotic effects’ (Law and Mol, 1995, p. 277).
The fourth myth was one of individuality. This was the idea that knowledge comes from the operation of a god-like gaze which emanates from an individual focal point.
Human capacities, therefore, could be framed as being the result of an
innate endowment that every individual received at the point of conception.
There was, in other words, no grasp of the individual as being a modulated
effect (Thrift, 1991), of human capacities as arising out of:
emergent properties of the total developmental system constituted by virtue
of an individual’s situation, from the start, within a wider field of relations –
including most importantly, relations with other persons. In short, social relations, far from being the mere resultant of the association of discrete individuals, each independently ‘wired up’ for co-operative or enthusiastic
behaviour, constitute the very ground from which human existence unfolds.
(Ingold, 1995b, p. 17)
All these myths were often put together in one final myth of how we are
now: the myth of the ‘modern’. Somehow, human life (in the West at least)
had transited into a distinctive historical space where everything was different and, well, modern. Most of all, ‘modernity’ was characterized by a condition of speed-up and transience which, in its main characteristics,
happened to coincide with the four myths outlined above.
First, supralunar organizations were involved in a whirl of constant information-gathering which fed into systems of control which produced an ‘iron cage’ of surveillance and discipline. Second, these organizations were supported by myths of instrumental rationality which allowed the world to be trussed up like a Christmas turkey, with nothing out of place. Third, and here was the lament, these organizations were able to drain sociality out of the world, leaving behind nothing but a systematized shell. Then, fourth, this world was therefore populated by anomic and hard-bitten individuals who had to develop all kinds of asocial survival skills. And there was, of course, a price to pay for this hubris. Not so slowly, but certainly surely, modernity builds towards a climax, usually involving a runaway apocalypse based upon either technology, or the arms race, or mass communications (Norris, 1995) in which, in one way or another, human subjectivity is annihilated.
Now these myths and fables arising out of the Joshua discourse are
being recast. Thus, the myth of total knowledge is being replaced by a new
one, in which knowledge is both partial and differentiated. The myth of
homogeneity is being replaced by a myth of qualitative commotion: ‘the
best synthesis only takes place on a field of maximal differences’ (Serres,
1995a, p. 91). The third myth is being replaced by one in which learning
by doing binds the metal and material together. And the myth of the given
individual is replaced by the notion of the socially constructed ‘dividual’,
constantly telling stories of their self.
The result is a view of the world as a constantly spooling production taking place on many different time scales and over many different spatial scales (Latour, 1993). In other words, the world has to be constantly brought into being through the hard and sustained work of constructing networks of translation and affinity.
Currently, these different myths and fables coexist. For example, contemporary accounts of the world economy after the demise of the Bretton
Woods system of international economic management have broken to a
greater or lesser degree from the Joshua discourse.
Thus, the first account of the world economy that is on offer is an apocalyptic one. A common reaction to change through history (Bull, 1995), this account reads events like the demise of Bretton Woods and the fall of the
Berlin Wall as evidence of a millenarian condition. Laced with phrases like
the ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama, 1992), and fin de siècle, such an account provides a cosy rest home for old intellectual habits like teleology and eschatology, as well as satisfying an alluring sense of the dramatic.
A second account of the world economy interprets events like the
demise of Bretton Woods and the fall of the Berlin Wall as symbols of a new
kind of modernity. Whether posing as ‘hypermodernity’, ‘late modernity’,
‘postmodernity’, ‘supermodernity’ or what have you, such an account usually
retains some of the old features of modernity, most notably a sense of
transience, fragmentation and anomie, but then either exaggerates these elements still further (as in Harvey, 1989) or adds in new defining elements
(Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1991).
This kind of work provides a resting place for social theorists who want to retain grand accounts of the world, but is also home to many social theorists who want to provide more accounts of the contemporary world (Alexander, 1995). However, even the most nuanced of these accounts rarely provide much of an anthropological sense, any sense of the world as a continually practised place in which the human is constantly redefined, and they thereby run the very real risk of exaggerating the differences between this era and previous ones.
That leaves a third, Genesis account of the world economy, one which
acknowledges the importance of events like the demise of Bretton Woods
and the fall of the Berlin Wall but sees them as both the distillation and the
illustration of three of its crucial tenets.
First, there is the difficulty of achieving sustained control of human systems, which bubble with a stubborn and constant creativity, and which therefore have a tendency to sidestep established orders like the nation state.
Second, there is the complexity of what we name in order to escape complexity. Thus systems like ‘capitalism’ and ‘the market’ which have apparently triumphed after the two Bs are now revealed, in the apparent absence of opposition, as made up of institutions which are manifold, multiform and multiple. There is no one capitalism
or market but only a series of different capitalisms and markets which
do not converge on a mean: thus capitalism and the market are seen as powerful – but not all-powerful.
Third, there is the need to understand history as an undetermined unfolding, a fullness of events, a ‘maximum of matter in a minimum of space’ (Perniola, 1995, p. 8). We cannot know history as a clash of giant and opposing, almost natural, forces – tidal waves of economic and social change which sweep across the human shore.
We can only know history as a more modest and complexly determined set of ‘actor networks’ (Latour, 1993; Callon, 1987) – practical orders which allow people and things to be translated into more or less durable entities which can exert force – or alternatively, using another language, as a set of complex systems:
The development of the complex systems model that seems so salient to us in so many contexts, the model that seems to underlie the organization of our
bodies, our groups, our work settings, our world – this model itself repudiates
any notion of a structure built on one foundation, an explanation that rests
on one principle. In turn the complexly interconnected world in which we
now live seems to say that both the model and its implications fit the current
nature of reality. All is in flux, order is transient, nothing is independent,
everything relates to everything else, and no one system is ever necessarily
continuously in charge. (Martin, 1994, p. 250)
Although this latter constructivist account may seem to be the most credible,
in part because of the looseness of its storytelling structure which gives
more points of entry to those who lack communicative resources, it is not
without its own ability to generate relationships of power, and it is important
to realize this.
Nowhere is this point made clearer than in the intensely practical realm of international business where physical and nervous energies have to be constantly expended on the concerns of the moment. In this realm, just as in the intellectual realm, the Genesis discourse has gradually displaced the Joshua discourse; and, just as in that realm, in doing so it has empowered some groups (such as managers with higher educational qualifications,
which increasingly include middle class women) at the expense of others (Van der Pijl, 1994). There is, in other words, as Foucault pointed out so often, no knowledge that is neutral, that is not a part of the power–knowledge
couplet. A cui bono? question always lies waiting to be answered.