Theory* is perhaps best conceptualized as a laboratory terrarium. The concepts of theory are really fully expressed (fully engaged in the world) not as ideas, but as mind-worms. Like in the old Tales of the Crypt scenario, they enter the subject’s brain through the ear. The ear becomes open to theory because it is already open to its stylistic flourish, its radical ambitions and its fringe role in the general scenario of ideas shaping the world. Then mind-worms proceed to burrow their way in, slowly and and continually reinforced by new mind-worms. The way out is through: the mind-worms eat neuronal matter, but also become neurons and neuronal patterns. Still, by the radical plasticity of brains, we hope that they find their way to the other side.
The other side is General Axiology.
Mindworm 1: Universal Agreement
An axiology is a value theory. Ethics, aesthetics and economics are classical examples. Theory looks at human affairs through the lens of the value theories that imply them and that are implied by them. For all our song and dance about how the equations of continuum physics can be restaged on graphs, the true mathematics underlying theory may well be the maths of orderings — from smaller to larger axiologies.
Still, if such a lattice of axiologies can be constructed, a greatest instance can be found; this is General Axiology. And if such a lattice cannot be rigorously constructed, the theory that manages to find General Axiology is higher than the theories that cannot.
Theory finds that the idea that some axiologies are larger than others is empirical, even if sometimes in the limited sense in which one keeps revisiting basic cases (the Rat Man, the Wolf Man…). For example: there is a sense in which
soccer football fans value the successes of a team they’re attached to; but along the same path, they value football itself more, and will find themselves in agreement with football fans in general in issues that are more general and abstract than the issues that divide them in camps. The same football fans will value their family “more”, but also on a different scale, a different leg of the latticework or a different subgraph of their physics.
These things build up; there exist higher and higher issues on which wider and wider populations find common ground. This is (we submit; but also many other voices unrelated to theory) the only value of democracy is that it finds itself constituted as a very high value and therefore an exalted value system. Therefore the matter of democracy (its stuff, its physics) can’t be valued if not beyond democracy. Yet this seems to be a Gordian knot in the general discussion of human affairs: to think beyond becomes bound up with thinking below. To question democracy is to advocate revolution; and yet revolutions become so because they must impose their beyondness.
General Axiology is a concept fraught with tricky subtleties, but at the surface level it means what the words say. Theory is at its best where it’s literal, and to be “the best” — the largest system of values — so must General Axiology. Etymology then frames this discussion (and ultimately the whole of theory): general and generic (words we’ve argued to be radically different) both ultimately trace to the same root of genetic and generative. More recently, it goes through Latin genus (“kind” as in “family”); it also oddly contrasts with specialis (“individual”, “particular”), which leads to species. It therefore runs counter to particularities and types, and towards the generative principle that births and bears out the formal sequence of Situations. Therefore, it’s abstract, but not by abstracting details.
From this falls out the conclusion that the road to General Axiology is not about resolving our differences and particularities; it’s about working through the generative principle of disagreements and radicalizing them — at each step we replace discord by the theory of discord. Until everything that currently seems charged simultaneously with profound ethical weight and practical, historico-political import — finds itself dissolved.
Mindworm 2: Delocalization
I wrote the headings for this essay and the text for Mindworm 1, and then stalled for many weeks — it is still unclear how many will have passed until we get through it. Ideas such as decentralization and desynchronization cut a vertical stroke through theory. This stroke touches the very beginning: Macunaíma as the widespread amorality that underwrites the (selectively scrutinized) behavior of politicians. But we grew up fast; decentralizing tempo taught us about the asynchronous structure of actual ongoing conditions; decentralizing relations of proximity and similarity gave us ideas about the very physics that underwrite the ambient conditions. If we weren’t so deeply reverential about the man, this could very well be nicknamed the Deleuze story: not because there is anything rhizomatic about it, but because it builds on local models of the world — graphs and differential geometry, rather than “global” vector calculus or algebraic topology.
But not every concept of theory is local; indeed there is often a deep ambiguity (say, in physique du role) between local and global features. This ambiguity is characteristic of tool-analysis. Insofar it relates to something like sex appeal, physique du role has global features; it can be characterized by Betti numbers and evolutionary psychology. Thus Alice Glass’s substitute is a blond-haired take on the same fiercely aggressive/withdrawn-introspective notes; it can’t be a man, or even a rotund opera singer. But this is all instrumental; and thus Claudio-Ethan presents the new chick to us with her lips shut, bobbing anxiously to constructed singerless music. Alice and Edith Frances alike are not the point; they’re local pointers to something else, at the same time distant and suffocating. This something-else has a distinctively global flavor as well, but it’s disclosed to us locally — with sex appeal, yes, but in distinctive combination with synthy, poppy bleeps, makeup, fashion styles (physique du role at large).
This goes back and forth (as it does for, say, diegesis, or the Joker Revolution) because distinctive locality is sandwiched between global premises (the appeal of the singer’s youthful physicality, on the one hand, and the dystopia of peak history, on the other). Ultimately this is true about tempo and physics everywhere that matters; local (decentralized, asynchronous) technologies enter into theoretical play because they disclose the ambient conditions of history, sexuality, storytelling, truth. In their capacity as local technologies, Alice Glass’s midriff-baring rock-babe outfits are indeed asynchronous (each of us sees it as a source of sex-appeal, if at all, at a different moment); but their effect of us is not that of an object of desire — she effectively presents herself to us not as a sexual being (a possible result of her alleged abuse at the hands of Claudio-Ethan) but as a portal.
This portal is not at all unlike the instant-travel transports of Star Trek and similar space stories: the effect of a dizzying array of technologies, it is the critical hinge in the larger assemblage (the place where you were, synth music, the place to where you were going). Each concept of theory is liberating insofar it manages to allow us to (hopefully systematically) access this point of delocalization where even the barest conditions of decentralization and asychrony vanish. Is it a coincidence that this appears to be the lift-off stage for general axiology?