Standards of Anarchy


A couple of days ago Jonathan Erdman wrote a comment on one of my posts, and my reply to his comment has extended itself so much both in time and in length that I’m putting it up as a separate post. In his comment Jonathan wrote:

Another possibility as regards anarchist-leaning writers…..Anarchistic folk tend to be difficult to herd together — for any project… The original philosophical anarchists were called “libertarians,” in truth the two terms were synonymous. In any event, anarchistic folk tend to be very independent and opinionated. Again, not easy to get them to commit to a large-scale movement… I also tend to believe that markets work, on a small scale. So, my idea of anti-capitalism would be more along the lines of Ebay: bring together the collective works of all the authors of the world and let them run their own massive publishing house, with no Jeff Bezos to skim billions of profits off the top.

There are three established mechanisms for herding individual writers together: the traditional publisher-bookstore apparatus, the edited literary magazine, and the online platform. In theory the writers could have self-organized any or all of these herding schemes; in practice it’s typically been imposed on them by managers, operations people, marketing people, investors. Amazon is like that: the writers and readers could have banded together to create a collective anarchist platform, but they didn’t. Now it’s too late: Amazon holds a monopolistic stranglehold, and it’s well-positioned either to crush alternative models, or to buy them out, or to imitate them and beat them at their own game. The writers might see themselves as anarcho-libertarian entrepreneurs as they send out inquiry letters to agents or submit short stories to magazine publishers or self-publish novels on Amazon, but they’re being herded nonetheless.

I’m picturing an Amazon-like platform for short fictions — there are some out there. Writers self-publish their own stories on the platform, readers look through the offerings to find what they like. Let’s assume that no money changes hands: it’s all open-access. Writers write from whatever passions motivate them, and they respond to the call of the audience as they see fit. No doubt an emergent order would arise from this anarchist swarm, not necessarily in the pyramid shape of commercial fictions but in a kind of N-dimensional clustering, with writers and readers who share particular interests or tastes finding one another and generating enough critical mass to form an asteroid, a planet, a solar system… But it’s a big universe, so there’s plenty of room to expand before either the singularity collapses everything back down in its black-hole gravitational field or entropy splits everything back apart into isolated atoms floating in the void.

Like you, I find that sort of emergent order idea appealing. What draws me to a more collective form of anarchism is a concern for excellence. The converging forces pulling together a totally bottom-up self-organized system would seem to involve the interplays of passion and calling, of supply and demand, unencumbered by the external constraints imposed by the owners and managers. It’s a kind of laissez-faire capitalism without the money and top-down organization, the invisible hand freed from the shackles of capital. Or maybe like democracy without political party apparatus and lobbyists and big-money campaign contributors.

It’s not certain that unfettered bottom-up democracy would turn into mob rule, nor that unfettered capitalism would generate a bunch of commodified junk. I am, however, concerned about a possible loss of excellence, overwhelmed by the mediocre tastes of the herd. Writing options would be generated as variants on what already achieves popularity, not on what ought to be or even what could be. So too with judgment: it’s a matter of deciding among the options on the table rather than comparing those options to some sort of standards.

All the same I’m skeptical of the standard-setters and the tastemakers, the elite who separate the sheep from the goats. Who anointed them; by what standards are they rendering judgment; who holds them accountable? In a republic the voters, the elected officials, and the government appointees are all held accountable by laws and the Constitution. Capitalism too is held accountable to laws and regulations. But as we well know these standards are subject to interpretation, to selective enforcement, to change. In a post from February 2018, also inspired by a comment from Jonathan Erdman, I wrote this:

So let’s say I’ve already actualized my potential to be a novelist by actually writing a novel. Am I justified now in professing myself to be a novelist? Or, in making the profession, am I offering my response to a higher calling, issued by some standard beyond myself, a standard to which I aspire, an actualization of a potential that resides not in me as writer but in the standard, in the sacred order of the True Fiction?

I agree that anarchists were originally libertarians, but typically with a collective orientation toward ownership and management, as opposed to the individualism that tends to dominate contemporary use of the term. “Anarchy” doesn’t mean lawless; it means leaderless. Laws and standards can be promulgated and enforced by collective agreement, rather than being pushed down everyone’s throats by the authorities.

I’m not advocating some sort of eternal ideal of beauty and justice against which every work is measured (and inevitably found wanting). Surely standards too can change: they can emerge bottom-up from a free democracy or a free market. They can also descend top-down from a political and economic Olympus.

In my posts on this website I’ve been reluctant to render any sort of judgment about the short stories I’ve read. It’s not that I harbor no opinions; it’s that I wanted to engage those texts on some other dimensions. My sense is that, when most people finish reading a text, they quickly arrive at an opinion as to whether they liked it or not, whether they thought it was good or bad. It’s nearly instinctive. Consciously or otherwise, people compare the new text with what they’ve read in the past, not just specifically but generally, as a sort of composite image or template. Some readers are able to make explicit the evaluation criteria they’ve abstracted from prior readings, from discussions with friends, from reviews. These templates and standards, built and refined on an ever-expanding experiential base, shape the experience of evaluating an actual text. But the standards and templates aren’t actual texts; they’re products of memory and imagination and thought. I.e., the standards and templates are fictions.

So I’m interested in exploring these fictional criteria by which people judge actual fictional texts. Readers spontaneously render judgments even if they can’t make their evaluation criteria explicit. Writers want to know what readers think of their work even if the opinions aren’t well elaborated. The Bestseller Code (2016) described a self-learning AI that was able to predict bestsellers based on variables it abstracted from data on previous bestsellers — these variables constitute a kind of bottom-up set of standards emerging from the marketplace. I’m curious also about the more top-down standards imposed by editors and publishers, the vetting process by which they decide which texts readers actually get to read. Maybe by understanding judgment — the comparison of actual fictions with fictional abstractions — from both the bottom up and the top down, some sort of meaningful convergence could result.

 

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