Positional pricing, positional leverage


I was in college around the time when the New Criticism, which adores explication de texte and all this close reading, was in decline. I would say it was in its height in its founding in the 30s and 40s; but by the 50s, it had become very derivative. It was practiced by these sort of third-raters, people without the real talent and erudition and prose style of the ones who had founded it in North America. And so I was in revolt, I thought, against it in my college years.

Camille Paglia, 2004 Bookforum interview


Q: It’s become de rigueur for trash cinema to get reclaimed. An entire culture has thrived defending, even intellectualizing genre films that don’t get major awards.

A: Actually, the movies that tend to never get rewritten about, never get analyzed deeply or have interesting online writing about them are well-reviewed, upper-middle-brow movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Adam Nayman, interview on Showgirls

There are a few discursive habits that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in critical circles (pop music, film, fiction), or simply hangs out on the Internet (in political communities, shared interest subcultures, fandom). Certain cultural works, or politicians, or people might be labeled “actually” good or overhyped; individuals on one side of the conflict or another fall into apparent exaggeration—something or someone “is trash,” “is genius,” etc. Users or critics will delight in arguing that some object beloved in a larger or rival subculture is “not worth bothering with,” has no redeeming qualities, etc, while simultaneously holding up “written-off gems” of their own. When a certain topic or theoretical approach is perceived as being too dominant, or occupying too many discursive resources, it may be boycotted or disparaged. An implicit sense of what is “overrated” or “underrated” seems to characterize individuals’ publicly stated opinions, even as these opinions are typically presented as “in-a-vacuum” preferences, likes or dislikes, etc. I want to talk about these tendencies through two frames: the notion of positional leverage, and the idea of position pricing.

To understand positional leverage, we first need a theory of public belief. My contention is that—to give a “just so” story from our evolutionary history—humans have traditionally lived in relatively small communities, where individual opinion held some sway in group decision-making, if only by exerting tacit pressure on a chieftain or council of elders. (We see this dynamic still: politicians in democratic societies are beholden to their populations, so that even if individual discontents are not registered, widespread discontents are.) Public beliefs, then, are situated, strategic interventions into a communal decision-making discourse. They are responses to the current “temperature” of a discourse, in an attempt to shift the thermostat to a position the belief-espouser believes more optimal. Sometimes a caucus will form, which takes its communal identity from its deviations from its nearest neighbors—hence, indie and alt-rock fans differentiate themselves from the mainstream; cratediggers, genre eclectics, historicists (“indie rock died post-Pavement”) and poptimists differentiate themselves from indie and alt-rock fans; often there is an evolution such that members of some inner, “nested” group previously occupied the “wrapping outer” group before moving inward.

In Jane Austen’s Emma, Mr. Knightley shares suspicions, to his friends, about the character of a Mr. Frank Churchill, with whom he is in a sexual rivalry over Emma Woodhouse’s heart. The reasons for his distaste for Frank are never made explicit; for much of the book, they seem merely to be his honest opinions. But when Emma, in the novel’s final chapters, reveals that her interest lies only in Mr. Knightley, his opinion of Frank Churchill suddenly, dramatically changes—he suddenly wonders why he should have been so suspicious and uncharitable. We, as readers, know: these beliefs are strategic attempts to sway Emma’s mind, and cause reputation damages to Mr. Churchill.

I believe all communication, ultimately, is a form of manipulation—one speaks to change the behavior of an agent. But the exact methods of manipulation differ depending on the type of linguistic technology employed:

What we call “commands,” “please,” “requests,” and “orders” are the simplest ways we have of making things happen by means of words. There are, however, more roundabout ways. When we say, for example, “Our candidate is a great American,” we are of course uttering an enthusiastic “purr” about that candidate, but we may also be trying to influence how other people vote. Again, when we say, “Our war against the enemy is God’s war. God wills that we must triumph,” we are saying something that cannot be scientifically verified: nevertheless, it may influence others to help in the prosecution of the war. Or if we merely state as a fact, “Milk contains calcium,” we may be influencing others to buy milk.

S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought & Action

Public belief broadly, I believe, is driven by an impulse toward strategic intervention in the discourse-as-is, the particular “game state” of the discourse at the time of speaking. Our expressed opinions, in addition to being expressions of group loyalty and caucus, are also attempts to sway mean opinion. And through rhetorical overleans, by the taking of more radical positions, we can more effectively drag or weight the discursive “center” toward the direction we wish it to be. As Bourdieu writes of Marx, in The Field of Cultural Production:

This explains why writers’ efforts to control the reception of their own works are always partially doomed to failure (one thinks of Marx’s ‘I am not a Marxist’); if only because the very effect of their work may transform the conditions of its reception and because they would not have had to write many of the things they did write and write them as they did—e.g. resorting to rhetorical strategies intended to ‘twist the stick in the other direction”—if they’d been granted from the outset what they are granted retrospectively.

This metaphor of “twisting the stick” gave way to an earlier metaphorical frame, “torque epistemology” and “discursive games.” But I believe a simpler analogy may be at-hand: a lever.

If the fulcrum, here—the discursive “center”—is the purple triangle on the left-hand side, then we can see how much disproportionate influence the 3lb weight has merely through its positioning far-from-center. (The force an object exerts downward, on a lever, is proportional to how far it is from fulcrum.) Often, when we take a public stance, I believe that we size up the consensus within our enveloping subculture—if we are contrarians, seeking to distinguish ourselves—or a set of beliefs advocated prominently by a rival outgroup, seeking to bond and ally ourselves—and then take a situated, strategic stance which we believe will help nudge that consensus “center” in a certain direction. It is not really that we believe Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls is the postmodern masterpiece par excellence—but we do believe it has been unfairly written off, and that our re-evaluation may one day be validated, become its own orthodoxy.

Which brings us to a similar but distinct mechanism, that of “priced” position-taking. If positional leverage is a way to intervene in coordinative decision-making, and to sway group opinion, the strategic buying and selling of positions is a more opportunistic, decentralized-competitive than persuasive approach to discourse. One metaphor is of the ecological niche—certain niches become “saturated” and over-exploited, eventually leading to exhaustion; others are relatively underexploited. By avoiding overexploited niches, and seeking out underexploited ones, we continually find new ways to distinguish ourselves (to use another Bourdieu term). Those who avoid culture war topics, or dissent from a newly reigning ideological hegemony, are avoiding overexploited niches.

But the analogy I prefer is a stock market: certain stocks are priced too high, and are liable to drop or plummet in the future; other stocks are priced too low, and will rise. When someone argues that a movie is “actually” good, or dismisses trauma discourse (the kind that saturates contemporary culture, from wokeism to the MCU universe) as trash, they are responding to the perceived under- or over-valuation of their subject. At the same time, there is an element of discovery—because ideas, unlike companies, can survive for decades or centuries without active upkeep, much of the value put forward by Game-B thinkers consists in their continually dredging up, and arguing for the value of, lost, abandoned, or niche ideas—be they ethnomethodology or strategic interaction.

With positional leverage, when individuals from different social groups and subcultures collide, be it in-person or on the Internet, the “situation” they are responding to—the perceived consensus or aggregate opinion they are counter-balancing—is forgotten. When we lose sight of the positions these strategic stances are reactions to, or hold in our minds a different hegemonic order than our interlocutor (perhaps because we are enveloped by a different wrapping subculture), the positions appear merely radical, irrational, or absurd. Perhaps their in-a-vacuum radicalism, irrationality, and absurdity become the very basis for our own rebellion, our own extremisms or our own “shortings” of the stock price.

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