The Official World

The Official World

by Mark Seltzer


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In his virtuosic new book noted cultural critic Mark Seltzer shows how suspense, as art form and form of life, depicts and shapes the social systems that organize our modern world. Modernity's predicament, Seltzer writes, is a society so hungry for reality that it cannot stop describing itself, and that makes for a world that continuously establishes itself by staging its own conditions. Employing the social theories of Georg Simmel, Erving Goffman, Niklas Luhmann, and Peter Sloterdijk, Seltzer shows how suspense novels, films, and performance art by Patricia Highsmith, Tom McCarthy, Cormac McCarthy, J. G. Ballard, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and others outline how we currently live and reveal the stress-points and mood-systems of the modern epoch.  In its focus on social games, depictions of violent and explosive persons, along with its cast of artists, reporters, detectives, and others who observe and report and reenact, the suspense mode creates and recreates modern systems of action and autonomy, and defines the self-turned world's practices and aesthetics. By epitomizing a reflexive, self-legislating, and autonomous world, a suspense art with humans in the systems epoch provides the models and sets the rules for our modern, official world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822360865
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/08/2016
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Mark Seltzer is Evan Frankel Professor of Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of several books, including Bodies and Machines and Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture.

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The Official World

By Mark Seltzer

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7445-9



"Superman is, after all, an alien life form," the horror genre writer Clive Barker notes in his introduction to Neil Gaiman's graphic novel The Doll's House: "He's simply the acceptable face of invading realities." He may have noted too that the acceptable face that an invading alien life form takes — in a type of world that consists of both itself and an unremitting commentary on itself — is that of a mild-mannered reporter on the Daily Planet.

In the pages that follow I mean to set out the pedagogical principles of such a self-reporting world, and the type of society it stages: a self-inciting, self-legislating, and self-depictive form of life that I redescribe as "the official world."

The globe and the reporter. The syncing of the two makes for what the historian of the Renaissance Jacob Burkhardt describes as the modern age's two great concurrent discoveries: "the discovery of the world and man." And that makes for a two-sided discovery, alter and ego: the opening to the great outside, the great outdoors, and to the interior, a new continent of self-reflection — and so its self-reporting.

We might take the broad view on this, one coextensive with the long modernity: the advent of the world as worldview, and so a world recast by the presence of alternatives. As Niklas Luhmann puts it, "It would be difficult to deny that in our present historical circumstances we are very concerned about not simply what modern society is but how it observes and describes itself and its environment." Such an observation has by now achieved the undeniability of self-evidence. It is, as George Spencer-Brown puts it, "the form in which our way of talking about our ordinary living experience can be seen to be cradled." But what exactly then is it evidence of? What is the character of a modern society that consists of both itself and its continuous autodescription? Bound to its self-description, the "cradle rocks over an abyss" — self-suspended from moment to moment. These forms of suspendedness and their zoned spaces — at once gamelike, violent, yet extremely formal — are elements of an official world.

What I want to set out here are some relatively recent examples of the form of a social-systemic organization that metastasized across the five-hundred-year range of what has alternatively been called the age of discovery, the age of globalization, and the bourgeois half-millennium: an age coming to realization, or to term, in the epoch of social systems and its anthropotechnics — or art with humans. The term "anthropotechnics" has been used for some time to describe human-technical assemblages, particularly in accounts of robotics and automatonic actions. The larger use concerns practices and forms of life (we can think here of Wittgenstein's language games or Foucault's power-discourse games) that enter into what the American suspense writer Patricia Highsmith calls "games for the living." This art with humans, these repeated practices and ego-technics, these informalized games mark out the grids, outlines, and practice zones of the official world: its form games.

There is an extended arc to the anthropotechnic turn, and to the putting into place of the improbable prospect of an autotropic planet: its imperatives and its repeating exercises; its precincts, circuits, and observation zones; its ways of relating the immanence of the system to its environment; and so of soliciting, and processing, what I will describe as news from the outside. The crux of the matter is that the theoretical object, the globe, includes but goes beyond the aesthetic geometry of round things. It includes — as Peter Sloterdijk has traced in rich detail — its shape, its history, and its turning: the provisions of a world of compulsive, repeatable, and reversible movements; interiors and projections; ventures and returns, or revenues.

We are familiar too by now with the passage from the age of globalization to the global age. To the present that runs, as the sports idiom has it, in the added or "injury time" of the modern epoch: the repeated repeating of a social world-system.

This is the crystallization of a synchronous world, and its depictive media. It is now alternatively depicted, for example, as the "pristine culture of capitalism" or as the "Anthropocene." These may be seen as alternating descriptions of a real subsumption, either a synchronized or a trumped world, and hence a periodization in the idiom of the capitalist sublime. That begins to indicate the reincarnative character of a self-organized world and its serial forms of life and death and life.

These are depictions of a self-turned earth. Here is the novelist Cormac McCarthy on it: "Across the pieced land they watched a man turning the earth with an ox yoked by its horns to a singlehanded plow. The plow was of a type that was old in Egypt and was little more than a treeroot. They mounted up and rode on." An extraordinary condensation of history, history as natural history, marks these contracted lines — and the species that singlehandedly if violently yokes them together, and, collaterally, watches that. This is a small diorama of the Anthropocene, one serving to indicate then that this term, the Anthropocene, less tells a new story than correlates an old one to the observation and depiction that enter into it. That correlationism has now arrived as its own theme — in this case, as the prerequisite of the form of the novel itself.

The correlation of world and worldview has now, across a range of fields — disciplines apparently are still seen as pieced plots of earth — come into view and so into question. It shows a reality and watches it being made: a picture of motion, it (like a motion picture) realizes what it stages and shows that. Such a coming into view appears as a turn taken in the history of a self-turned and self-observed planet — a series of turns I will be calling "the turn turn." In McCarthy's fiction of such a "crossing," this is an overturned and so uprooted world: one on the move and made for people with plans, and upwardly mobile, on the move up and on. There is encrypted here the great shift from vertical to upward mobility as the practice of modernity. It is as if one can daily turn the earth beneath one's own feet.

This epoch is what I have worked to describe, over the last several years, as the official world. The range-finding episodes set out in these pages are commentaries on some of the demarcation zones and practices, ascetics and aesthetics, of the official world. The intent is that this concept may then step-by-step accrue some indication of what Alexander Kluge has described as "the precision of rough ideas."

The Premises of the Official World

The argument of this book can be stated simply: a modern world comes to itself by staging its own conditions. A modern world is a self-conditioning and self-reporting one. If, prior to the nineteenth century, society could not describe itself, now it cannot stop describing itself — in an attempt to keep up with what it is at every moment bringing about.

Or, as the great science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem neatly put it: "In the Eolithic age there were no seminars on whether to invent the Paleolithic." A modern society — which is to say, a continuously self-monitoring, auto-updating, and modernizing one — is what Emile Durkheim (inaugurating modern sociology, and so indicating a society on the way to self-description) described as an "almost sui generis" society. The autotropic character of that world makes up what Durkheim also would call a social fact.

It is necessary to set out these common, and, for the most part, well-known observations, since the conditions I mean to describe in these chapters — conditions at once familiar and surreal — depend on the background reality they, from moment to moment, hold in animated suspense. That reality is a complex infrastructure stabilized by its own tensions — like one of its iconic architectural forms, the suspension bridge.

There are three general premises to this argument.

First, if a modern world comes to itself by staging its own conditions, it must consist both of itself and its self-description, denotation, or registration. A modern society, to the extent that it is modern, takes note of itself as it goes along. It posits what Roland Barthes calls the now "most ordinary exercise of our language, which is commentary." In doing so, it curates a world.

Second, if a modern world is a self-reporting one, a modern society must be bound to what Max Weber, early on, described as the self-documenting qualities and self-descriptive techniques that are the defining attributes of the second modernization. The modern world is an official world not merely in its administrative a priori, and not merely in the spreading of self-administration across the zones that make up the near-continuum of the modern social field. The administrative a priori consists in the bending of the will to know the real to the will to produce the real. The official world not merely denotes itself as it goes. Its operations, beyond that, mean that taking note of the fact is a fact-producing act. If it stops commenting on itself, it dies.

Third, the model for this self-staging world is then the modern work of art. We know that the modern work of art interrogates itself with an unremitting and unsparing intensity as to its own nature and singularity. We know too that this leads thinking in a circle, by leading art back to the expression of its own conditions. The work of art thus epitomizes an autonomous, reflexive, and so self-epitomizing world.

But reflexivity today is cheap. I am tempted to say, "It's free." Hence to the extent that it does so, the work of art is then both exceptional and exemplary in what we can call the epoch of social systems. It is exceptional in its autonomous relation to, as they say, the "outside" world. It is exemplary in that it provides the very model of the autonomization of that world, its stand-alone, internalized, and demarcated character. In this way, the artwork not merely makes the world appear in the world, but too unceasingly marks that it does so. It openly displays its own principle of production. The modern social system and its demarcation zones — like the modern work of art — perform their own unity (see part II).

The artwork stages what it does, and, in doing so, enacts what it shows. Staging and acting (as in motion pictures) oscillate, each in turn interrupting and taking the place of the other. This resembles a magic trick, a self-exposed one: "There is no reality if one cannot ask about there being one." The self-exposition is part of the routine, undoing in effect the privilege routinely accorded to reflexivity. Yet the routinization of disenchantment has (with apologies to Weber) its own charisma. The self-exposed trick requires, for its analysis, less an archaeology of knowledge than, as it were, an archaeology of knowingness. It is necessary then to look at the aesthetic and social function of these routines. To look not least, for example, at the social function of one of the practical working models of what the microsociologist Erving Goffman calls "our indoor social life": the practical joke (see part IV).

This self-staging opens to view the paradoxical status of the sui generis artwork in the company of contemporary social systems: modeling each other, they produce a reality in suspense. But — and crucially — this means that the systemic, reciprocal, and repercussive character of action in the official world then poses a basic difficulty of interpretation and perception, and so of aesthetics (as a science of the a prioris of perception).

That difficulty may be framed in these terms. The reflexive character of the demarcation zones that make up the official world has a singular, and peculiar, independence from, or even indifference to, aesthetic and philosophical expressions of the theory of reflection. Reflexivity without interiority, and operating on its own. That adapts, in effect, the most basic and rudimentary lesson of cybernetics — that reflexivity is a property of matter, not a privilege of human cognition — and applies it to itself.

That generalization of reflection is only part of the difficulty. A reflexivity without interiority means this: an externalized reflexivity that posits a coming together, or assembly, of individuals outside themselves. The American novelist Theodore Dreiser traced it early on, in his first novel, Sister Carrie (1900). This estranged or extraverted reflection consists in "little audible links, chaining together great inaudible feelings or purposes": like the links of a chain letter or the phatic (channel-checking) function of an incessant twittering.

It is necessary to reconsider the significance of this compulsive exteriority of purposes and feelings. The most ordinary exercise of continuous commentary is visible not least in academico-professional circles: the semiauditory clattering of thousands of keyboards set in motion, across the academic archipelago of lectures and seminars, by a contagious, self-promotional stenographic fervor. Twitters sent up like the little paper ribbons of writing tied to the latticework outside Shinto shrines, and some Zen temples, in Japan — appeals sent up to the great outside. (It may be possible to see the rotational system of the academic conference — the extreme narrowness of professional citation circles, its self-repeating imperatives, its papers and name-tags — as the professional rezoning of a reincarnative form of life, via practices of compulsory, or compulsive, self-boosterism.)

A renewed ascetics of self-boosterism has emerged, one designed for the upwardly, if not exactly the vertically, mobile. Its ego-technic devices — rechristened social media — realign ascetic practices of the self to a self-promotional zeal. This pristine form of professionalism has affinities with the life-counseling industry that burgeoned in the mid-twentieth-century United States. It has affinities (it will be seen) with movements like Scientology and its streamlined corporatist spin-offs (with a wide following among corporate middle-managerial types open to, as one of these programs describes it, "Miracles Around Money"). The Weberian work ethic redesigned for self-designers is a fundamental attribute of the realized official world, an ongoing refashioning of ascetic practices of vertical mobility for calisthenics in upward mobility. (Yet the new asceticism — no pain, no gain, in repeated sets — retains a spiritual residue of devotionalism, in the form of an exteriorized and impersonal self-devotion. Or, as my solar cult fitness center Equinox puts it, "It's Not Fitness, It's Life." I will return to what "it" is.) Self-boosterism is a formal property of an autotropic and self-stimulative world. This type of world is one not merely in a continual state of suspense — the milieu of "men in space," to borrow the title of Tom McCarthy's first novel — but in stricto sensu self-suspended. (Superman, it may be recalled, did not at first fly; he leaped.)

These circuits are, among many others, versions of the stranger-intimacies of contemporary social systems, and the feelings and purposes incited and carried by their ego-technic media. This in turn enters into the collective autism that Sartre, describing the function of seriality in modern society, called the practico-inert.

The presupposition of exteriority is crucial here. That is the case not merely because any immune system, from moment to moment — acting in a world of effects — is perpetually marking the distinction between what it is and what is external to it, and so perpetually attuned to news from the outside. It might be said then that, stated simply, the official world does not have a boundary; it is a boundary. Or, put differently, a system needs a limit. The reflex question then, "What is 'outside' the official world?" is the question that it, from moment to moment to moment, puts to itself.


Excerpted from The Official World by Mark Seltzer. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Part I. The Daily Planet

1. Introduction to the Official World  3

2. Brecht's Rabbit: The Anthropotechnics of Suspense  25

Part II. Stationary Carousels and Chain Letters: The Ego-Technic Media of the Official World

3. "The Proper Study of Interaction"  47

4. Chain Letters  61

Part III. "Social Games": Playing Our Part in the Systems Epoch

5. Parlor Games  83

6. The Natural History of Artificial Life  109

Part IV. Suspended Worlds: Men in Self-Curved Space

7. The Wall of the World  127

8. Marching in Files  142

Part V. News from the Outside

9. The Turn Turn  163

10. A Postscript on the Official World  178

Acknowledgments  199

Notes  201

Bibliography  261

Index  275

What People are Saying About This

Pornography, the Theory: What Utilitarianism Did to Action - Frances Ferguson

"In this remarkable and wonderful book, Mark Seltzer creates a reading practice that makes novels and films crucial indices to understanding human agency in the contemporary world. In an almost effortless fashion, Seltzer ties his remarkable analyses of Patricia Highsmith and Tom McCarthy to contemporary theoretical disputes, making this an important book for courses on contemporary fiction, literary theory, histories of the novel, and film."

A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature - Bill Brown

"In The Official World Mark Seltzer extends his idiosyncratic and mesmerizing account of modernity realized, here, through a tour-de-force engagement with the fiction of Patricia Highsmith, among many others. Reading Seltzer can induce exhilaration and a kind of vertigo. But it never fails to lead you to a compelling (at times amusing and at times chilling) recognition of how our world operates, and how it keeps on operating. The most imaginative and astute critic working in the systems theory paradigm, Seltzer provides an account of the modern world that will make a major impact in literary studies and beyond."

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