the disintegration of the masses and the rise of the schizohistorian


masses of us.jpg

Agim Rudi, The Masses at Rozafa II, 2008

We showed America that the silent majority is no longer silent. Today, we created an America that WINS again. Today, we made our hopes, our dreams – our limitless potential – an unequivocal new reality. Today, we made history. Today, we created a government that is once again of, by, and for the people. — Donald J. Trump. American President-elect, Victory Speech, November 8, 2016.

According to their imaginary representation, the masses drift somewhere between passivity and wild spontaneity, but always as a potential energy, a reservoir of the social and of social energy — today a mute referent, tomorrow when they speak up and cease to be the ‘silent majority’, a protagonist of history. —Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. New York: Semiotext(e), 1982:2.

For those with a political agenda, the people are always the hero, the victim, or the chief obstacle. For those on the modern political left, the masses are the victim suffering from false consciousness but are also a latent hero. Thus, the revolutionary can awaken this fettered colossus and stride into the next stage of history. Or, when these projects fail, the people are the ignorant masses who remain enslaved due to their narrow vision of the world.  For the modern political right, the masses can be a useful political ally—one that must be disciplined and talked to on a level they are assumed to comprehend like a child that does not know its own strength.

The idea of the masses is a useful starting-point, a solid immovable barrier that we cannot pass through: “the whole chaotic constellation of the social revolves around that spongy referent, that opaque but equally translucent reality, that nothingness: the masses,” (Baudrillard, 1982:1). [1]

Our inability to dissect the mass into classes or discernible categories shows the flaw in our idea of the social. Our desire to study society, to have a science about human life, meets its match here. Instead of finding a subject for study, the modern project of social science crashes into this unmovable, unknowable first particle, the masses. All of the work of social science is confronted with the fact there is no discernible object of study, just a black hole which engulfs the socius.

This impenetrability of the masses and their rejection of elite cajoling, is an intentional reaction against meaning. This is a fundamental point that has been overlooked or deliberately ignored. The tendency in modernity is always to lament the ignorance of the docile masses. But there is nothing to deplore within the masses supposed indifference to political events, history, art, and culture and everything to analyse as the brute fact of a collective retaliation and of a refusal to participate in the recommended ideals, however enlightened the political elites say they are.

Yet, social thinking does not take this observation as its starting point. Rather than facing this truly important point, the social and political sciences discard the issue by asking instead how to enlighten this poor victim. This quest to ‘enlighten the masses’ has led to the social sciences’ devising various methods of contact: surveys, polls, and tests. This maneuver has extended the life of the social and political because the masses do, after all, exist. However, as recent unexpected events have reminded us once again, the representation of the masses is no longer possible in an impossibly complicated world that is at once, entirely liberated from coherence. [2]

Politics has been forced to rely on simulations of the people as a substitute. The media reports to us through newscasts what various shades of liberals, conservatives, socialists etc. are thinking. The masses that do exist are not engaged but simulated, poked and probed by the technologies of social science. No longer being under the reign of will or representation, the politics of everyday life falls under the province of diagnosis, or divination, pure and simple—whence the universal reign of information and statistics. No longer a participating subject, the masses are simulated for the political class to engage with through the media and probed for signs of their desires, hopes, and fears by social scientists working in the academic machine. [3]

As an endless spectacle channeled through the hands of Donald Trump has made clear, the so-called silent majorities in contemporary society are not interested in facts and in seriousness. [4]

Although our society is good at creating and manipulating consumer demand, our technicians of social science, our titians of globalization, and our political leaders have failed to stimulate the demand for meaning. Or, perhaps we should say, the demand for any particular meaning. In other words, the people have become a public. It is the sporting match or film or cartoon which serve as models for their perception of the political sphere. The people enjoy the everyday, like a home movie—the fluctuations of their own perceptions in the hourly release of opinion polls.

Nothing in all this engages any responsibility. And it is from this perspective, this vulgar and violent realisation that we must all think more deeply about the history of political activity and its possible replacement. Maybe this replacement can be a political project that takes a new form.

Perhaps its replacement is a different form of social activity for contemporary societies that addresses the questions once answered by politics. In either case, we must move to devote more effort to investigating what the masses are concerned with. Rather than maintaining this fiction that the majority is silent through ignorance, we, with the impetuous to act, need to accept that the masses’ unexpected turn in their politics must first be understood if it is to be overcome.

Instead of cajoling some sample group into choosing an answer from one of our ubiquitous surveys—thus creating the simulated public once again—we should be investigating what the masses are doing without such provocations. This task demands a schizo-historical approach toward thinking about politics and society. With a methodology of thick description, we may find new intersections of social activity that can replace the modern political forms we have inherited.

To revive politics, we need to find an alternative to the current, dominant strategy of mass political behaviour—an alternative to the now looming silence that Baudrillard (1983) describes.

I) Schizohistory answers when new forms of radical energy call for a new materialist history. In the study of the schizophrenic motivations of events both actual and virtual, the schizohistorian attempts to combine the insights of schizoanalysis with the research mythodology of the social sciences to understand the schizo-somatic—emotional, affective, visceral—origins of the social and political behaviour of the masses in our past, present, and futural materialist conditions.

II) Schizohistory derives many of its concepts from areas that are perceived to be ignored by conventional historians and psychoanalysts as shaping factors of human existence, in particular, the apparent anxious, nihilistic affects of the post-modern condition—an increasingly collective realization that all life is constructed by a material, unpredictable, and contradictory muddling of meaning, all meaning is constructed by power, and ergo that all reality is constructed by power.

III) Schizohistory requires a commitment to probe the affective, aesthetic, and algorithmic dimensions of the silent majority within post-fact capitalism—a technocratic echo chamber in which facts have now been jettisoned from our political reality—to engage and mobilize past, present, and future experiences of people towards a Levinasian socio-ethical transformation. [5]

IV) Schizohistory discards the mass Cartesian self-other distinction by articulating a monistic connection between alterity and singularity through reflecting on the other’s resistance to comprehension, which is expressed in subjectivity—the most comprehensive site of normativity, but it is neither its origin nor its source. Instead this ethical subjectivity can only be thought of as difference in-itself. [6] Subjectivity cannot be universally described or represented, since it is not a phenomenon with particular qualities, presented in the context of a horizon, positioned in relation to other objects, and so forth—and yet, it is also not a mere abstraction or mystical apparition. Rather, subjectivity has an ethical meaning—it presents itself us as the irreducible presence of a mortal and vulnerable other with whom we are a social relation, whether we like it or not. This presentation already expresses the command not to murder—it already conveys an ethical resistance which puts our powers in question and asks us to justify ourselves. In this sense, subjectivity is actual more than virtual/visual—it commands and calls for a response.

V) Schizohistory depends on the idea that, since one cannot, in a Kantian sense, universally locate the non-reducible desires of subjectivity in the actions of a particular individual, an affective study of the masses can help to better understand the general flow of future events.

This politico-ethical obligation put forward by schizohistory is not about securing some sort of grounded and incontestable moral certainty in precariously uncertain time—the demand for schizo-ethical justification is not issued once and for all in a momentous encounter with the stranger, but that it is renewed at every moment, in every conversation with every other.

Instead, what we must do is deploy a schizohistoriography that works to expose the simulacra of the masses and find forms of political activity that cannot be so easily simulated. Doing so requires expanding our categories of analyses to include the affective phenomena of the postmodern condition. It is in this bewildering but provocative terrain we are likely to find more fertile counterpoints of resistance to the political simulacra that the silent majorities disdain.


[1] To want to specify the term ‘mass’ is a mistake—it is to provide meaning for that which has none. Even so, in order to get anything out of the essay one must want to specify the meaning of the term mass. The trick is to do so without giving to meaning to the masses. That is, to find its meaning through the meaning of that which it is not. While the social has particular referents—a population, a people, a class—the mass is without attribute, predicate, quality, reference. This is its definition, or its radical lack of definition. It has no sociological ‘reality.’ It has nothing to do with any real population, body or specific social aggregate.

[2] However, we must not intend to criticize this reification of the masses as a sloppy concept. Instead, for the schizohistorian, the masses are useful to study as an analytical endpoint. The ongoing deconstruction of class, socio-economic status, race, gender and other categories shows these ‘better’ tools of analysis, or better candidates for the idea of the masses have also only ever been muddled notions themselves, but notions upon which agreement has nevertheless been reached and solidified for the mysterious end of preserving a certain code of analysis—an ideological discourse that reentrenches a cultural status quo.

[3] Rather than existing in some ‘real,’ the media overlay on reality means we exist in statistical models that purport to measure reality but in fact are tautological, capable only of grasping what it is has already predicted and modeled. Think of the ways in which Facebook controls your Newsfeed. In a successful attempt to shape your conception of your social reality, of what your friends are talking about and what sorts of political ideas are ‘important’ to them, all while injecting advertisements determined through data analysis to be the least disruptive and most persuasive. Social media promises to entertain you, but this promise is synonymous with manufacturing demand—thus being entertained becomes no different from learning how to desire; pleasure is no longer desire fulfilled, but desire itself, the condition of desiring.

[4] In The hands of Donald Trump (Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 2016, Vol. 6, Issue 2), Kira Hall, Donna Goldstein, and Matthew Ingram point to the ways in which Trump’s successes are due largely to his value as comedic entertainment. As late capitalism values style over content, Trump’s unconventional political style, particularly his use of gesture to critique the political system and caricature his opponents, brought momentum to his campaign by creating forms of spectacle that took this characteristic to new heights.

[5] In Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (1961) Levinas provides us with a schizohistorico-ethical grounding by articulating that alterity is not a matter of difference (in the sense of contextual, relational, determinate differences) or otherness (in the sense of an oppositional difference between the self and non-self) but rather a radical singularity that puts into question rigid social differences without appealing to a shared, monolithic identity. To understand what singularity means for Levinas, we must understand his account of transcendence, which both refers to the phenomenological tradition and diverges significantly from it. For Levinas, the transcendence of the other does not indicate an otherworldly presence, but rather a transcendence in the flesh, within finite being—only as such can transcendence open an escape from the suffocating plenitude of being. This opening of transcendence within the immanence of being makes possible a relation to the other which is not reducible to statistical comprehension or appropriation—‘a relation without relation’ in which the other is greeted or received without needing to become known.

[6] Instead of something distinguished from something else, what Deleuze, in Difference and Repetition (1968), calls ‘difference in-itself’ gives us a possibility of something which distinguishes itself– and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it. It as if the ground rose to the surface, without ceasing to be ground…imagine a purely auditory universe consisting of only a single note, held at the same frequency, for all eternity, without beginning or end. This universe has no chairs, no rocks, no instruments, no particles, no zebras, no cities, etc. It consists of this single note and this single note alone without variation or change. In such a universe, this note would not differ from anything else because there would be nothing but this note. Moreover, in this universe, this note would not differ to anyone because there would be no one there to hear it. Nonetheless, I contend in such a universe, this note is a difference. It is the difference of precisely this frequency and no other. It is of no importance that it is not distinguished from anything, nor that is not observed by anyone. It is nonetheless this difference in the full positivity of its being (28).