ἀλλ᾽ εὐξάμενος τοῖσιν θεοῖς διδάξομαι αὐτὸς βαδίζων ἐς τὸ φροντιστήριον.

Well, having prayed to the gods, I’ll go into The Thinkery and teach myself.
— Aristophanes

Safe-seeing: Plato after the Internet

April 22, 2014

On this page, I've been developing my thinking on the question of post-theory in the Internet Age, from my perspective as a Plato scholar.  

Recently I had the pleasure of sharing and talking about these ideas at the Post-Theory conference at UC Berkeley, where I focused on the case of Google Glass.   

[0/4] Elegy for Theory

In their introduction to the volume Theory After Theory, Jane Elliot and Derek Attridge describe contemporary conversations about theory as “an ongoing wake”.  In 2007, film theorist David Rodowick composed an "elegy for theory", mourning the loss of reflection upon our ethical presuppositions. When "post" is taken in this funereal sense of "after", the question of theory becomes over-determined by the choices between justifying theory or chastising theory – “over-determined” meaning that the ideas we have about theory flow in a too- limited way from this original moral positioning. 

I would like to invoke instead another sense of “post”: that of the 16th century European mail system, in which generals and statesman "laid posts" at intervals along a route.  There horses would wait in order to race in rapid relay from post to post to deliver the dispatches, also called "post."  In this context, "post" reminds us of the delivery of messages, but especially of the structure of a relay. This moment in the history of post prompts us to ask: What have we inherited from theory, and what interval remains to be run?  Seen this way, "post" helpfully draws a line under our digitally-saturated present, forcing us to evaluate how we might proceed from where we actually are.

[1/4] What does this meaning of "post" do for "theory"?

The English word "theory" derives from the Greek verb theôreô, θεωρέω: to be a spectator, to behold, to contemplate, observe, to perceive, to speculate or theorize, and the related noun, theôros, θεωρός, one who spectates, an envoy, a messenger. Classicist and Berkeley graduate Andrea Nightingale has beautifully detailed the relationship between the cultural meanings of this term and its appropriation by philosophy.  In her book Spectacles of Truth: Theoria in Cultural Context, she explains that the Greek theôros was a civic envoy who would visit the religious festivals and sacred mysteries of other cities, and return home to report back. In Plato's analogy of the escape and return to the cave, this journey of observation comes to signify "the quintessential activity of the true philosopher" (77). Nightingale's 2004 work already evidences the absorption of certain Nietzschean and post-structuralist critiques of philosophy's traditions of binarism and ocularcentrism: she demonstrates that Platonic theoria was erotic rather than disembodied, partial rather than panoptic, and transformative rather than disinterested (Kindle loc 160-65).

Nightingale's account is trustworthy and very apt. But needless to say, in focusing especially on the analogy of the cave in Book VI and VII of Republic, she does not exhaust the messages that the theôros carries. I would like to focus on a slightly prior occurrence of the term, in which the activity of spectating or observing has a special function as the proper training for the children of the guardian class of Kallipolis.  Theôria, in Book V, is a carefully moderated activity of observing war while minimizing risk: it is the process or problem of "safe seeing."  

From the Online Liddell Scott Jones, via TLG (proxy required)

[2/4] Republic V

The context is this.  The task of the Republic is to search for justice. To try to find it, Socrates has described a theoretical city, Kallipolis, the organization of which includes the surprising proposals that women and men can equally be its guardians, and that children should be held in common.  In book V, our current focus, he is asked to expand on these ideas.  As he does so, Socrates is thoughtful about the theoretical and unconventional nature of his proposal, asking for the generosity of his listeners as he defers the problem of feasibility (dunatos, 458b), and begins instead with the question of desirability. He gets his listeners to agree that men and women do not differ in their essence, and therefore are equally qualified for the role of guardian, and that this will be best; he then secures agreement that the strange proposal of having children in common, is likely to lead to a happy and unified city.  Finally, he turns to the all important question of whether and how this "partnership of the sexes" is possible.  His first thought is describe how the scenario would play out in battle -- war being the primary function and activity of the guardian class, and one of course nearly exclusively associated with men.  

The way in which the guardians make war will be the means of realizing his radical proposals for social re-arrangment, he suggests -- and in this, the capacity for observation and theorizing turns out to be central.  Just as the children of potters and all other professionals learn their trade by observing their parents, Socrates believes that the children of the guardians should accompany them on campaign, so "they can observe (theoreô) the occupation they will have to follow when they grow up" (467a). Their presence, for which there is no parallel in Greek ways of warfare, will have the dual benefit of providing them with the necessary experience and motivating their parents to fight most vigorously.   

Glaucon voices the obvious worry about the possibility of catastrophe: that both parents and children will be lost.  But Socrates argues that the risk is justified: some risk is acceptable, he says, and especially those risks that will make an important difference to their future success (467c). (An important lesson for our risk-averse society, as detailed by Ulrich Beck.)  He does temper his initial proposal by expanding it:

"What we want to bring about, then, is a way of making the children observers (theôrous) of war, while at the same time thinking of some clever means of ensuring their safety.  That would be ideal, wouldn't it?" (467cd)

τοῦτο μὲν ἄρα ὑπαρκτέον, θεωροὺς πολέμουτοὺς παῖδας ποιεῖν, προσμηχανᾶσθαι δ᾽ αὐτοῖς ἀσφάλειαν, καὶ καλῶς ἕξει: ἦ γάρ;

On Glaucon's assent, Socrates proposes the following "clever means" as their precautionary measures:

  1. The parents will only take the children on the safer campaigns (467d).

  2. They will put the children in the care of qualified paidagôges, or slave-tutors (467d).  

  3. They will put the children on horseback --"give them wings" -- so they can take flight, or escape safely, by following their guides (467e).  

We should also recall that they have already said that they will only bring the 'most robust' of the children (466e) - an initial process of sorting and selection.  

Theorizing, then, is here a practice of observing war, safely, to prepare for future political rule. Reading through the post-structuralist insight into the interlocking of opposites and the primacy of relation, we see that there is no separation between theory/practice, or theory/politics; far from being a distant and disembodied activity, the bodies of children are (in this theoretical proposal) submitted to a reasonable if still quite terrifying risk.

But we should not fail to mitigate this risk.  By a careful selection of "robust" individuals, wise judgment of less dangerous situations, accompaniment by qualified tutors or bodyguards, and technical support for escape (horses, wings), the political training known as theory can take place.  The children can  "safely see" the maneuvers and horrors of war, and still grow up to become philosopher kings. 

[3/4] Safe-Seeing Now

It's not just the danger of walking into a pole while looking at your smartphone.  Innovations in wearable technology such as Google Glass mean that there is a strange new country -- "augmented reality" -- to which we must send our envoys, while not failing to equip them so that they can return.  Participants in Google's Glass Explorer program submit themselves to a justifiable risk of the sort Socrates defines: wearing Glass is the kind of estranging, awakening experience that could in fact make us better philosophers; perhaps even better custodians of our present. It doesn't stretch the imagination terribly to see how putting on a pair of Glass resembles sending a child to observe a battle on a horse:

  • First, the wearer enters an arena in which she is not the master; in which multiple forces compete fiercely for her attention and allegiance.  She is dependent upon the Cloud, the Glasswear apps that Google makes available, and completely vulnerable to whatever suggestions appear in her eyeball.  

  • Yet it is also true that the Glass offers the wearer a means of escape: "ok glass, get directions to downtown Berkeley BART." Or, "Ok glass, get directions to a bar nearby."

  • And most saliently, Glass is a powerful tool for observation and contemplation.  "Ok glass, record a video" will capture a sense of duration; a subtle wink generates a still shot.  The "make vignette" feature represents the layers of the experience, by making an image that shows what's in your perspective (the view of all of you) as well as what's in your glass (perhaps a compass, or a weather screen).   

The risks, too, are worth detailing.  To enter "augmented reality" is not to become disembodied, but rather to risk your flesh in the game—or the war.

Exhibit A: the woman who claimed to have been assaulted and robbed for wearing Glass in a San Francisco bar. 

Exhibit A: the woman who claimed to have been assaulted and robbed for wearing Glass in a San Francisco bar. 

Exhibit B: the recent emergence of a new Bay Area direct action anti-tech group called CounterForce, which has innovated past blocking the Google buses and instead is targeting individual Google Engineers.

Exhibit B: the recent emergence of a new Bay Area direct action anti-tech group called CounterForce, which has innovated past blocking the Google buses and instead is targeting individual Google Engineers.

Of course, there is the further, perhaps paranoic possibility that even these negative narratives are part of Google's masterful advertising plan: to make wearing Glass feel like a real adventure in a world that sometimes feels painfully over-programmed.      

[4/4] Telos of Theory

And that's when theory is no longer enough.  It is the philosopher, not the theôros, who knows how to distinguish between what's real and what's not-- between who is authentic, and what's a bot.  Book V ends with an intensification of the question of the feasibility of Socrates' proposals.  He demurs to have his ideas judged by the criterion of feasibility, saying, it is "only natural for practice (praxis) to have less of a hold on truth than theory (lexeôs) has" (472). Still, he suggests a "minimal change", one single thing that, if transformed, would bring his community that much closer to the ideal of Kallipolis.  And that is the famous assertion:

"There is no end to suffering, Glaucon, for our cities, and none, I suspect, for the human race, unless either philosophers become kings in our cities, or the people who are now called kings and rulers become real, true philosophers -- unless there is this amalgation of political power and philosophy" (473d-e).  

The hybrid figure of the philosopher-king suggests that the task or telos of theory is a self-overcoming, as others have suggested: for the model to approach reality, or reality the model, via the theôros/ observer who travels between the frontlines of reality and the images of thought.

Of course, there will never be a complete coincidence of fact and account, politics and philosophy.  Socrates is right to prefer instead the standard of the "proximity" or the "as close as possible" (473b).  Though we lay down post after post, we never quite arrive, as Xeno's paradox illustrates; we are always standing on a new brink of what can be seen, and must invent new methods for approaching it -- to see as much as possible, with moderated risk.


Read it again!

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