An Aggregated Equality – Michigan Quarterly Review

An Aggregated Equality

In his 2006 essay “Digital Maoism,” computer scientist Jaron Lanier warns against the privileging of collective over individual intelligence inherent in the growing popularity and profitability of content-aggregation websites. Google News, reddit, StumbleUpon—all function largely by gathering material created elsewhere. So, too, Wikipedia:

[M]ost of the technical or scientific information that is in the Wikipedia was already on the Web before the Wikipedia was started. . . . In some cases I have noticed specific texts get cloned from original sites at universities or labs onto wiki pages. And when that happens, each text loses part of its value. Since search engines are now more likely to point you to the wikified versions, the Web has lost some of its flavor in casual use.

When you see the context in which something was written and you know who the author was beyond just a name, you learn so much more than when you find the same text placed in the anonymous, faux-authoritative, anti-contextual brew of the Wikipedia. The question isn’t just one of authentication and accountability, though those are important, but something more subtle. A voice should be sensed as a whole. You have to have a chance to sense personality in order for language to have its full meaning.

What is authority, Lanier asks, without a corresponding sense of authorship? Both words are rooted in the presence of an author who is known “beyond just a name.” When text is prised from context, it is deprived of one of the primary wellsprings of textual value. This process, Lanier reminds us, comes with serious political, economic, artistic, and ethical consequences.

Content aggregation is also a primary quality of remix culture in the worlds of art, music, and literature. Those who bemoan this—or even are simply wary of it—are often cast as Luddites who refuse to get with the technological times. Or else their motives are suspiciously mercenary: they are too concerned with copyright and money, remix culture contends, rather than with the art itself. And while I believe these “mercenary” concerns may be legitimate (aggregation in the news media, for example, is drawing eyes and wallets away from newspapers and making quality local journalism harder and harder to come by), I’m more concerned with the possible effects of content aggregation upon art itself. Lanier’s comments about context and authorship in online settings are absolutely material to this discussion, as well.

In his book Reality Hunger and elsewhere, David Shields has articulated what he calls an “antigenre” of art that “smuggle[s] more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art” though various techniques, including “a blurring . . . of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.” In one sense, this is hardly revolutionary. As Shields himself acknowledges, all art seeks to capture reality; every artist seeks in this sense to produce work that is more “real” than that of her predecessors. Furthermore, the collage techniques Shields describes and promotes are themselves quite old. In citing examples for them, he outlines a long and venerable tradition of “blurring” the artifice and the real.

In that sense, then, his manifesto is neither new nor particularly surprising.

What is surprising, though, is the way Shields translates his personal impatience with unfragmented narrative and argument into a formal claim that collage—a process of lyrical fragmentation and recombination he calls “literary montage”—is not only a viable technique (who ever said it wasn’t?) but the viable one. Collage is the future, he argues, in part because technology demands it. And it’s here that Lanier sounds a necessary note of caution. Shields and Lanier both agree that technology encourages formal content-aggregation—but does this mean that art ought to respond by formally aggregating content?

Shields may be conflating a statement about language with an argument about form. “My medium is prose,” he declares, “not the novel.” But this isn’t quite so. If he were truly more concerned with prose itself than with a particular method of lyrically fragmenting multiple paragraphs of prose, he’d recognize that the content-aggregation he’s endorsing is already a property of prose, an inescapable fact of language itself.

Consider the Declaration of Independence. Visually, there’s nothing fragmented about it; the reader is presented with a single, unified block of text. As an artifact of language, however, it is a remarkable remix of ideas, a crosshatch of interconnected and often competing influences.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” What’s going on here? That word equal, in particular, has a rich heritage. In what sense should we read it? In what sense did Jefferson employ it? It’s a word he lifted, like a musical riff, not from one source but from many.

One such source is Pericles, or at least the Pericles described by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War (coincidentally, an act of historical reenactment referenced in Reality Hunger). In an oft-excerpted oration in which he exhorts Athenians to defend their city by eulogizing democratic ideals, Pericles describes equality as a legal condition consequent to citizenship:

[Athens’] administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.

But Jefferson’s word—while it encompasses this sense of legal protection, civic obligation, and equality of opportunity among fellow citizens—gathers other influences as well. For example, there are echoes of the Puritan virtue ethic espoused by John Winthrop in “A Model of Christian Charity.” Drawing his vocabulary from 1 Corinthians 12

For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?  . . . But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. . . . [T]hat there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.

—Winthrop makes a profound economic claim. He argues “that among members of the same body, love and affection are reciprocal in a most equal and sweet kind of commerce,” and that this “sweet commerce” obliges community members to “extraordinary liberality” regarding personal property. Shared perils require a collective response, Winthrop asserts, in effect promoting a communalization of private property in times of need: “If thy brother be in want and thou canst help him, thou needst not make doubt of what thou shouldst do; if thou lovest God thou must help him,” Winthrop writes, and, “we must help him beyond our ability. . . . [A] man cannot likely do too much.”

Winthrop and the Puritans saw this as not merely a religious injunction, but a political one as well. Winthrop concludes by saying that he and his congregants must “seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government both civil and ecclesiastical” [emphasis mine]. That Jefferson’s own relationship to Christianity was deeply idiosyncratic the publication of the Jefferson Bible (another literary remix) can attest, yet the Declaration of Independence is freighted with religiously inflected language and outright appeals to a Creator.

Yet the communalization, or constant circulation, of private property was the furthest thing from the mind of Thomas Hobbes, another influence upon Jefferson’s sense of “equality.” In fact, the constant rotation of wealth and resources is a primary feature of the state of nature, Hobbes’s secular hell. Inborn equality, Hobbes argues, is to blame:

Nature has made men so equal in the faculties of the body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or quicker of mind than another, yet . . . the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he.

For Hobbes, the psychological egoist, equality is the source of tremendous insecurity, which can be mitigated only by the establishment of government and law. Given the influence of social contract theory on the thinking of the Founders, including Jefferson, his vocabulary is noteworthy. For Hobbes, nature endows humans with a single right—liberty, or more specifically “the liberty each man has to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature”—which in turn can be tamed only by harnessing, through government, “the passions that incline men to peace”: “fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living, and a hope by their industry to obtain them.”

Need I point out how very different these three conceptions of equality are, in terms of both their definitions and their consequences? How, then, does Jefferson square this circle, uniting these competing influences in a single passage?

Consider again the language of the Declaration’s famous opening:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator . . .”

“. . . with certain unalienable Rights, . . .”

“. . . that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Jefferson conflates Hobbes’s right of nature with his three basic human passions, calls them facets of Periclean legal and civic equality, and provides as the source for all this Winthrop’s Christian God. The Declaration’s use of equality, then, is based upon a fragmentation and recombination—and an intentional misreading—of its various competing influences.

Thomas Jefferson, remix artist? Well, yes.

But my point here is that fragmentation and recombination are natural features—and unavoidable consequences—of language use.

Language, in other words, is itself a form of content aggregation.

This is, I’m aware, hardly news—it’s not for nothing we’ve separated the concepts of denotation and connotation. Keeping this trait of language in mind, however, may temper our reactions to both Shields and Lanier. On one hand, it underscores Shields’s points about the vitality of collage; after all, collage is the underlying mode of all verbal communication. On the other hand, it undercuts any argument for collage as a formal necessity, rather than one of many viable formal choices. Formal collage may, in fact, often be redundant. Certainly the Declaration, fragmented and remixed as it already is, would benefit from it not at all.

Meanwhile, Lanier’s warnings about the dangers of content aggregation remain vital to our understanding of information culture in a digital age—his book You Are Not a Gadget is a must-read manifesto for our times—but Jefferson’s language reminds us that the remix has been with us for a long time and will remain with us as long as language endures. The Declaration of Independence divorces pieces of prior texts from their contexts in a way that amounts to a deliberate misreading—approaching any of the Declaration’s influences with only a Jeffersonian notion of equality would certainly impoverish our understanding of those source texts—but does so to noble, and stirring, effect.

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