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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology.
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The Paranoid-Critical Method

Paranoia, as the cliché has it, is a higher state of awareness, a form of privileged insight unburdened by such trivialities as plausibility or verification. It’s sometimes seen as a cancer that afflicts our hermeneutical faculty, causing it to enlarge and impose itself everywhere, explaining everything in terms of everything else in an ongoing, provisional way, usually to simultaneously rationalize and vitiate a sense of futility. It substitutes spurious explanations for actual efforts to change things, often things about oneself. This sort of thinking can create an impenetrable fortress of depression, repelling all intuitions that it can actually make a difference to do something.

But as Kurt Cobain famously observed, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” Depressive paranoia can blind you to the ways people are actually preying on you. And criticality can be labeled paranoia as a way of discrediting or pre-emptively dismissing it. There is a basic level of paranoia that’s necessary to conceive of oneself as a self, to allow us to recognize our vulnerability and accommodate it in advance rather than let it be something we register only after self-defensive instincts have fired. Some paranoia is necessary to believe that our interpretations of social situations matter. As long as we can modulate our level of paranoia in light of the contexts we find ourselves in, we can retain a secure sense of self — secure, that is, in a suitable understanding of the social dangers we face.

What form can paranoid self-control take? Rem Koolhaas’s 1978 architectural history of New York City, Delirious New York (pdf), devotes a section to Salvador Dalí and his “paranoid-critical method,” by which he would “conquer” New York. For Dalí, Koolhaas explains, the paranoid critical method was the “second phase” of surrealism, “the conscious exploitation of the unconscious,” “the spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectifications of delirious associations and interpretations.”

What necessitates the method is a “Reality Shortage” brought on by the way metropolitan congestion causes the symbolic exhaustion of things. Koolhaas offers this somewhat awkward metaphor:

As the big toe of a saint’s statue gradually disappears under the onslaught of his devotees’ kisses, so the Big Toe of reality dissolves slowly but Inexorably under perpetual exposure to the continuous Kiss of mankind. The higher the density of a civilization — the more metropolitan it is — the higher the frequency of the Kiss, the faster the process of consumption of the reality of nature and artifacts.”

Because “all facts, ingredients, phenomena, etc., of the world have been categorized and catalogued,” we need a paranoid-critical method to invent new ones that resist this kind of stultifying classification.

Koolhaas extrapolates  from Dalí’s writings how the paranoid-critical method should proceed:

As the name suggests. Dali’s Paranoid-Critical Method is a sequence of two consecutive but discrete operations:

1. the synthetic reproduction of the paranoiac’s way of seeing the world in a new light — with its rich harvest of unsuspected correspondences, analogies and patterns; and

2. the compression of these gaseous speculations to a critical point where they achieve the density of fact….

If you don’t know what that is supposed to mean, perhaps this diagram will help:

If you have read any of my writing over the years, you probably have a sense of my devotion to this method; I’ve got plenty of “limp, unprovable conjectures” that have been stimulated by my “paranoiac thought processes,” though I may be a little weak on the “Cartesian rationality” aspect.

Most of my conjectures lately have to do with the systemic paranoia induced by social media and its surveillance capacity. The horrendous ramifications for privacy are obvious to everyone at this point, yet they have not deterred anyone from using social media and allowing social media to embed themselves ever deeper into everyday-life practices. Where is the paranoia? Is it so omnipresent to have become invisible? And why hasn’t it stopped people from signing up?

Rather than avoid the intensifying social threat, we appear to be adjusting our inner paranoia to accommodate these unprecedented levels of vulnerability. This suggests an unthinking and ongoing transvaluation of values is occurring, whereby the invasive and exploitive possibilities inherent in social media are recoded as an expression of basic human impulses, as realizations of long-held dreams of connection and freedom of expression, of collective self-discovery or the discovery of long-suppressed collectives. Somehow we can look at something like Facebook and see it as a tool for building trust rather than obviating it.

Part of this transvaluation takes the natural yearning for recognition and inflates it an unchecked hunger for indiscriminate fame, as though attention were like money, fungible and hoardable, and more of any kind of it is automatically good.  Fame has no limits and can’t really be rationalized on the scale of what had been routine life; those who have been saturated with the amount of attention fame brings have almost always been psychically destroyed by it. It is the opposite of being appreciated for what you do in the moment, or what sort of person you are to the people you are close to, and eventually precludes those humbler forms of appreciation, which are impossible in the context of fame. Your own notoriety becomes the explanation for everything anyone says to you; it’s all obligatory homage being paid to fame, and the relation of all that attention to how you actually are in the world can’t be verified. It becomes a paranoid condition, in which no approval or recognition is genuine but instead must be interpreted as having been calculated to achieve some other aim. Fame in many ways is confirmed by the experience of paranoia. The degree to which fame is regarded as desirable, paranoia is desirable too.

Another way of describing that species of paranoia is that all human relations are instrumentalized, which is, of course, what “networking” is all about. The paranoia of social media, the paranoia of unchecked exposure, can be recast as a fantasy of becoming ubiquitously useful, the fulfillment of being ever ready-to-hand, like Heidegger’s hammerHeidegger’s Hammer should be a band name; I’m picturing a bunch of philosophy Ph.D. students playing doom metal covers., and, in that way, paradoxically invisible, safe. You are never analyzed for how you are, but are always seen instead of how you might be deployed.

At the same time, we see others in the same way — perpetually useful, worth “following” and reporting on — verifying our own safety. As Koolhaas notes, “The paranoiac always hits the nail on the head, no matter where the hammer blows fall.”

I’m starting to think that social media comprise a paranoia machine by design, that users regard this as a feature and not a bug. In other words, they make up a kind of external control panel for modulating the paranoia necessary for selfhood, even as they serves various expansionary capitalist ends. They make paranoia seem constructively generative, self-affirming. As the slogan on danah boyd’s site puts it: “making connections where none previously existed,” which is a good definition for both paranoia and social networks. Koolhaas writes, quoting Dalí, that

The essence of paranoia is this intense — if distorted — relationship with the real world: “The reality of the external world is used for illustration and proof … to serve the reality of our mind …”

Paranoia is a shock of recognition that never ends.

The pursuit of novelty, the never-ending shock of the new, seems directed outward by a furious curiosity, a hunger for the real, but really it is shaping our inwardness, carving out new caverns, confirming the our curatorial, associative powers as an unchallengeable logic that supersedes the real as it presents itself to us. Social media permit us to perform the paranoid-critical method as second nature, without having to be a surrealist or a New Yorker. The urgency with which we share things, add facts to the collective pool, certainly attests to our common belief in a Reality Shortage. Social media makes everything feel insufficiently real as given, and in need of our hyperattentive correction or interpretation to make it real.

Dalí and Koolhaas seem to regard paranoid-critical activity as hostile to the given order, as subversive. Koolhaas writes,

Paranoid-Critical activity is the fabrication of evidence for unprovable speculations and the subsequent grafting of this evidence on the world, so that a “false” fact takes Its unlawful place among the “real” facts. These false facts relate to the real world as spies to a given society: the more conventional and unnoted their existence, the better they can devote themselves to that society’s destruction.

Now that we are replacing the journalistic construction of verified reality with self-interested social-media glossolalia, perhaps “society’s destruction” is proceeding apace. But the “false facts” we might spontaneously generate in interacting with social media — whether we are feeding our paranoid fears or indulging in their flip side, unrepentant self-aggrandizement — are no more or less false than the ideological interpretations of reality that pass as “real facts,” the ones convenient to power and the reproduction of existing distributions of privilege and so on. In fact, they fit that ideology’s individualist bias, the belief that it is our duty to aspire to fashion a private reality for ourselves and that our social status hinges on the success of that project.

Koolhaas argues that the paranoid-critical method “promises that, through conceptual recycling, the worn, consumed contents of the world can be recharged … like uranium” and that it “proposes to destroy, or at least upset, the definitive catalogue, to short-circuit all existing categorizations, to make a fresh start as if the world can be reshuffled like a pack of cards whose original sequence is a disappointment.” That sounds like a description of Tumblr blogs avant le lettre. They have fractured the “definitive catalogue” of cultural images into millions of subcatalogs that make no pretense at a complete representation of the world but propose the equally grandiose total representation of a self. And millions of us must then confront the apparently unsolvable problem of finding a sequence no less disappointing than the original.

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4 Responses to “The Paranoid-Critical Method”

  1. Reader says:

    One the most genuinely-human pieces of writing I’ve experienced in quite some time. Thank you Rob Horning.

  2. Cel West says:

    Fascinating piece.

    The roots of this late-capitalist paranoia lie further back: in mass production, in the paranoia of Philip K. Dick and Ballard, in Sontag’s truths about the ubiquity of the image, yet we are certainly seeing their apogee in tumblr, facebook, in constant surveillance from inside and out.

    Truly the topology of this age is that of a schizophrenic state.

  3. Joker says:

    I’m totally sharing this on my Tumblr blog, Mr. Horning.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The Paranoid Critical Method was also championed by Lacan and Burroughs, and its contemporary stepchildren are called “conspiracy theories,” now rampant within the overproduction of “facts.” The antidote, for better or worse, is Shannon Information Entropy, the systematic elimination of possibilities. What is meant by that? “Would I tell if I knew?” S.D.

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