Notes on Pluricide

Although there are more people alive than there have ever been, there are fewer ways of thinking and doing than there have ever been. We are living in a time of convergence and conformity. There is an erasure of difference.

Conformism and erasure go hand in hand. We conform to certain things because (at least for now) they are 'correct'. We 'erase' others because (at least for now) they are wrong.

There is a 'great forgetting'. Not a day goes by but we don't hear about another species endangered by our 'success'. Tigers, the great apes. And every documentary about, for instance, eagle-hunting in Kyrgyzstan, describes how skills handed down from generation to generation for millenia are now disappearing as people drift to cities and embrace 'modern' lifestyles. (They use computers and mobile phones, their kids spend hours on the Playstation. They wear jeans, baseball caps and business suits.)

Under Stalin, cultural differences in Kyrgyzstan were not tolerated. In fact, standardisation under the banner of 'Modernism' erased a lot of cultural differences in the 20th century under all political systems. The speaking of Welsh and Gaelic, for instance. Until only recently, left handers had their hands tied behind their backs and were forced to write with their right hands.

We do vaguely understand that it is dangerous to erase 'the idea of a tiger'. We know that the argument that we are increasing diversity by filling the world with new models of hands free cellphone even as we erase thousands of species of animals is not a very convincing or happy one. (Can we compare the utility of a tiger with the utility of a wrist-phone? One is certainly more useful to us.) We do vaguely admit that to put 'failed' ideas into some kind of gene museum might be the very least we could do. And yet there is often not the political will, the money, to do this. After all, although 'the normal' raises huge sums with its triumph over the market (and to define 'the norm' is the very essence of commercial success), it's hard to convince Normal Corporations of their implication in the erasure of otherness. Microsoft gave Apple money, but will the manufacturers of a successful hands-free cellphone give money to the World Wildlife Organisation to save the tiger? Will they see any connection at all between their introduction of a human-centred idea (which increases form diversity in the world of tools, machines) and the erasure of a non-human-centred idea, indeed a human threat -- the tiger?

Why should they? There is no direct connection. The survival of tigers is not the concern of Panasonic. Let the government worry about tigers. The government which for centuries has controlled their hunting, or assisted with their extermination as pests or dangers, must now ensure their survival. Or let international bodies, charities and trusts, make the preservation of tigers their goal. Or what about selling tiger DNA as a copyright? Then rich collectors could own and trade endangered DNA the way they own and trade art.

When the rule is conformity-erasure, you have to resort to desperate measures.

The advocacy of pluralism is a form of public guilt expressed by the very people erasing 'the other'. (It is always governments which speak of 'pluralism' and 'biodiversity' while the societies they govern continue to suppress difference and destroy nature.) It is a mea culpa which allows the society to 'carry on your slaughter'.

Imagine if 'La Pensee Unique' openly advocated rapacity and erasure instead of preaching tolerance and diversity. It would be difficult for it to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of its peoples, its cadres and functionaries. If the battlecry really were 'Carry on your slaughter! All think the same way!' would we really all carry on our slaughter and think the same way?

Instead 'La Pensee Unique' advocates a sort of vague, diffuse regret, and honours principles like 'biodiversity' and 'pluralism'.

Most of us are 'normal'. We think 'normal'. We are part of 'La Pensee Unique'. Certain people, however, are designated 'preservers of difference'. Is that an exciting role? Probably not. Ask the remaining American Indians, languishing on reserves, soaked in alcohol and drugs, going nowhere. The exciting thing is rocketing towards sameness, as the Chinese are. Converging and conforming, 'catching up'. Racing ahead on the acknowledged track rather than striking out on your own.

Or rather, getting to redefine 'la pensee unique' and give it one's own features, accent.

To follow 'the single correct way' is usually to consent to murder.

Pluricide started with monotheism. Monotheism is one of history's greatest pretexts for murder.

This land. This people. This god.

Tie those three ideas together and you have the basic conditions of almost every genocide known to history.

In the life of an idea, there is a moment at which it flips over from being something enriching and diversifying to something monopolistic, something which is part of 'la pensee unique'. The moment at which one could call it 'normal, true, realistic, correct' is the moment at which it becomes dangerous, oppressive (Microsoft). Do not believe it when it tells you that it is still part of diversity, of 'life's rich tapestry'. It now threatens diversity. It is now part of 'centrality' and 'erasure'.

There is also a moment at which an idea, apparently reductive, becomes part of diversity. When lists, designed to save objects or cultural items from the rushing flow of plethora, become, themselves, part of that rushing flow. When national identities, dominant, central and convergent at home, become mere colours in the international palette, flavours in the global smorgasbord.

Just as massacre can become, with repetition and embellishment, a 'storybook saga' and appear quaint -- or form an integral part of a national myth -- so a previous form of pluricide can, once displaced and endangered, become part of plurality.

Plurality is a kind of scrapheap of failed would-be 'pensees unique'.

Plurality is contextual.

A Turk in Germany is part of an ethnic diversity. In Turkey, he is the 'pensee unique' that strikes fear into the heart of kurds.

The liberal tourist syndrome: I value, in my own culture, innovation and diversity and deplore tradition and closure. However, when I go to abroad I value tradition and closure. I align, at home, with the left -- suppression of the national symbols, scepticism about the national myths. I align, abroad, with the right -- patriotism, heraldry and regalia. What, at home, would seem like suppression of diversity seems, there, to be a valuable cultural identity, another flavour on the smorgasbord.

Tell patriots: 'The national identity for which you struggle in the hope of suppressing diversity within your borders is, from my perspective, just another colour on the palette of diversity. Your struggle to suppress difference actually enhances it.'

Cage (following Buckminster Fuller) wanted a universal plug. That would be a conformism that encouraged diversity, right? A worldwide power voltage, worldwide plug shape, worldwide telephone connection... those would be good and useful things, right, not 'la pensee unique', not 'erasure', right? We could conform on basic, value-neutral things like technology, only to leave ourselves free for diversity in important areas like culture, right?

Can we think of standards like those as the pedestal, and diversity the statue? But -- forgive this stupid sounding question -- is it really clear where the pedestal ends and the statue begins? Is technology really value-neutral? Does a new file compression standard come with a certain vision of the world attached? Is there an 'ideology' of VHS or mp3? There are certainly things we associate with those formats, which make their neutrality cloudy. VHS is about taping TV for the first time. mp3 is about making music free. Sure, we could use VHS for something rather like monastic illuminations, but only a few artists (Nam June Paik) have done anything like that.

Are standards inevitably part of the poison of 'la pensee unique'? Are technical standards value free? Does every new standard bring with it new 'erasures'?

Modes of representation. McLuhan said that a given mode of representation makes a claim to be 'reality' for a while, and during that period attempts to be 'a window on the world'. Then it gets displaced by a new medium, which makes a similar claim. (The internet says television was a lie because it could not tell us what we wanted to know, when we wanted it. It was a push medium, not a pull medium. But when television was invented, who would have anticipated such a criticism?) When this happens, the old medium says, effectively, 'Okay, I was only kidding about being a window on the world. In fact I was an arbitrary set of completely artificial conventions. The set, the studio audience, the news reader and her odd intonations, the scanning colour dots, the sound but no smell, the ration and frame, the sports Saturday... Henceforth I will celebrate my 'thisness', my unique formal properties. Until I die. But this new medium that has come along and replaced me, become the new pensee unique, it has formal properties too. Don't think it's a window on the world either. Its claim to be that is partly based on my failings, and it has failings of its own.'

Is it possible that, in order to generate an idea which will enhance plurality, one has to wish, initially, for it to be become the new 'pensee unique'? That that hope is a pre-condition of the immense effort required in the establishment of a new idea? Tigers are now endangered, but being a tiger means wanting to be the king of the jungle, doesn't it, wanting to kill and lay waste and destroy and subdue?

A tiger does not say to itself, 'I want, this morning, to form an interesting part of the tree of biodiversity'. It says 'What will I kill today?' That is part of its tigerness: to destroy all that is 'not-tiger'.

A tiger which had accepted its role as just another stitch in life's rich tapestry would be sad indeed.

The pandas don't want to be pandas, they just want to be dogs, housepets like everyone else.

To incarnate difference is to become, ultimately, tragic, just as to incarnate 'la pensee unique' is to incarnate, finally, murder.

Again and again we see this trope: normality demands -- and legitimises -- killing. There must be bloodletting for 'la pensee unique' to establish its dominance. In fact, bloodletting is one of the ways 'la pensee unique' advertises itself. This killing of 'the other' is sad yet inevitable. You must join in. You may even enjoy your assigned butchery, which, unlike other forms of butchery, is blameless, because it is butchery on behalf of 'la pensee unique', or correctness.

Alarm bells should ring whenever we all 'get it right' at the same time. Everybody getting it right at the same time is... wrong.

Diversity is not willed, conscious, a goal. It is accidental. The lack of an agreed model, a centre, a god, a plan. It reigns when communications are poor and confused. Misunderstanding, impossible (or at least difficult) in a wired, global world, is key. The more ways there are to misunderstand a dominant idea, the more ideas there are. Even better for diversity if there are no dominant ideas.

But how do you avoid dominant ideas? Especially if they seem attractive or right?

'Style' or 'identity' requires that some idea dominates at some point, at some level. There may have to be some kind of interruption to the hierarchy before ideas lower down or further out may be able to blossom. What is it that stops us from behaving 'normally' here?

Why do we not have a branch of Ikea, or a copy of Sony Style magazine, here? Why do the big supermarket chains consider it unprofitable to open here and marginalise our small traders with their own styles?

There is some dysfunction, some disruption in the system which prevents us acting, here, as others do, there. Let's hope it's not just our stupidity or provincialism.

How many 'new forms' does capitalism generate. Of all the new songs, new cars, new phones it is capable of generating, how many are genuinely new ideas rather than attempts to copy previous successes or refine and confirm the current 'universal template'? And how many of the genuinely new products come to market? How many of those are able to earn back their R&D costs and make a profit? And if they do make a profit, does the company maintain a wide diverse catalogue of products, or focus on the big sellers?

How long would we have to wait until humans could -- or would even want to -- design something like a tree? Imagine making a design sketch of a tree, pitching it to a big corporation. 'Well, it's a product which is rooted to the ground, takes decades to grow, has an irregular mass of green appendages which convert energy from the sun. It is self-sustaining. It has no single purpose other than to sustain itself, although if we husband or destroy it we can gain some derivative materials like fruit and wood.'

'I like it. Go ahead to the 3D modelling stage. Make it smaller and more efficient. I want it in silver, not green. And I want it mechanical, not biological. Look at running it on electricity. Also, we need a quicker development time and a more precise function. What's going to persuade people that they really need this product in their lives? And it would be better if it wore out and had to be replaced over a two to three year cycle.'

Put yourself at some point in the future with the formula 'Now that (current orthodoxy) is no longer the case...'

'Now that cities are no longer dominated by cars, now that security no longer dominates the international agenda, now that American films no longer dominate cinemas, now that the War on Terror has been won, now that the earth is no longer endangered by pollution, now that the weather problem has been solved, now that there is a shrinking gap between rich and poor, now that AIDS is no longer a threat, now that internet access is wireless, free, and open to all, now that more is spent worldwide on education than armaments... what shall we do?'

Probably we shall multiply. But shall we also diversify? Why should we, since we obviously 'got it right'?

La Pensee Unique / Convergence / Conformism v. Pluralism / Divergence / Diversity.

You cannot think 'la pensee unique' and right. You cannot think 'la pensee unique' and wrong.

Right and wrong are irrelevant. What matters is that you are central, dominant.

Blame Plato. Blame monotheism.

Religions with many gods (decentred): Hindu, Ancient Greek, Shinto, Druidical... At some point they have all encountered monotheism. Some have fallen to / infiltrated it (the incorporation of pagan festivals into the Christian calendar), others resisted or co-existed (Shinto's wily co-existence with Buddhism).

Buddhism is a monotheism without a god, therefore without the imperative to kill.

We are still in The Age of the Car. Putin and Bush both heavily implicated in the oil industry. China buying cars 'as if they were going out of fashion' (which they are). We should totally be over cars by now, but will probably have to wait 100 years or so before they die.

I am remarkably impatient, and tend to act as if things slowly receding had already gone. This is dangerous: I may well get knocked down by 'last year's thing'.

Correct furniture comes from Ikea. A correct car looks like a BMW. The correct song is by Elton John. The correct group is The Beatles. The correct religious text is The Bible. The correct economic system is capitalism. The correct domestic pet is a dog. The correct hot drink is coffee. The correct form of music is pop music. The correct way to dress is (formal) suit and (casual) sportswear. The correct sexual orientation is heterosexual. The correct way to write is with your right hand. The correct way to pass your time is to sell your labour for money, which you then spend in your leisure time. Other ways of doing these things are 'tolerated'. We call other ways 'alternative'. It is rude to call them 'wrong'. But if you resort to them too much you will die slowly or be killed.

Any alternative which is not becoming 'the correct' is slowly dying. The zone between 'the correct' and 'the wrong' is an uneasy place. There is no stability there. You cannot, for instance, keep your independent record label between hits and misses for too long. (And do not think that you can finance your misses with your hits. Look at Mute.) Between winning and dying there is not much space, and even less time to waver.

Is it correct to smoke, or wrong? Well, it is 'a bad pleasure'. Both correct and wrong. Smoking is making the transition from 'correct' to 'wrong'. It is very difficult to mount a cool, charismatic attack on smoking. It benefits both from its recent 'correct' status and its new glamour as a 'rebel, outlaw' activity, a dangerous forbidden pleasure. Smoking is liminal and contradictory, like rock music. How can these activities be 'rebellious' when they have vast corporations behind them? Is the government cool because it is for rock music, and uncool because it is against smoking? Or is it cool because it is against smoking, and uncool because it is for rock music?

'There should be different types of air to breathe,' proclaims the fanatic of diversity. But we need only one type of air. There are only different qualities of that one 'correct' sort of air. It would be nice to be amphibian, to thrive on many gases. But our design, for now, requires air.

Diversity, in Darwin's account, is crucial to survival. Why then do we kill it? Because we kill in the name of diversity too. Diversity is a beauty contest which must, at some point, have a winner. But beware that you don't then have a genocide. Remember that there may be a next round, for which you will need contestants. And between one round and another, the criteria for beauty may change.

It would no doubt be charming if I were to pretend to be the man who never threw anything away, because he never knew what he might need. But I am more like the man who collected things other people didn't want, because they were cheap, hoping that he might be able to sell them later at a higher price. Or the man who did the opposite of what everyone else was doing out of pure snobbism, or the opposite of what he was told to do out of sheer naughtiness. Or the captain who went down with his own ship rather than get saved by a boat captained by someone else.

Yes, even I, the black sheep of every possible family, don't actually believe in pluralism for its own sake. I hope at least I add to it, despite myself.

I expand this theme in the discussion thread Pluricide and Power Laws, drawing on the systems theory of Clay Shirky.

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