Consuming Determinisms (long)

Vance Geiger (geiger@PEGASUS.CC.UCF.EDU)
Mon, 25 Mar 1996 08:30:45 -0500

Consuming Determinisms

It is in my humble opinion unfortunate that in discussions of
power, history, racism, post-modernism, ideology, advertising,
and such there is no mention of these concepts in terms of their
use-value as marketable determinisms. I tend to think that this
is because there is a failure to recognize the market for


What is a determinism? It is the feedforward prediction that an
identifiable cause (a condition, a set of presently existing
factors - behaviors, biological chacteristics, even inferred
ideas) will produce a specific effect. Many determinisms can be
validated through everyday experience. If you jump from the
tenth story of a building you future will be determined by
something called "gravity" for example. The reality that many
determinisms are through experience determining lends a efficacy
to the idea that other areas of experience are determined as

There is a problem here, however. Most of the efficacious
determinisms are found in what we refer to as physical phenomena.
One advantage that people working to find efficacious
determinisms in physical phenoena have over social phemonena is
scale. We tend to think of the individual who jumps from the
tenth story of a building as a single unitary "thing" who will
fall, because of gravity, toward another untary thing, the earth.
Actually, the outcome of this event will be determined by the
interactions of an almost infinite number of atomic and sub-
atomic particles. The final outcome is in actuality a
statistical event. What appears to be the assertion of a
determined event between two objects is in actuality the
assertion of a determinism between a bazilion objects. It is
interesting to note that as physicists attempt to get down to
understanding the behavior of a number of specific unitary things
comparable to the size of populations studied by social
scientists they get less and less sure of their determinisms.

It is also interesting to note that the tools used by present day
physical scientists, statistics, are largely the tools originally
devised to attempt to explain social behavior.

The Market for Determinisms

The market for determinisms is even more difficult to
specifically define since it is derived from cognition, the
processes that take place in the brain. I have been told that it
is not enough to assert that we, as homo sapiens, are born with a
"need to know what to do" as a result of being born useless,
helpless and needing constant care. I have been told that the
assertion that most of our behaviors are acquired through
learning and are thus not determined biologically is not ipso
facto evidence that we are born consumers of determinisms. I
have decided to dissagree with this advice. I think we are born
consumers of determinisms. There is a considerable amount of
evidence to be found in cognitive science that people are highly
susceptible to making demonstratably false inferences in the
search for determinisms or "knowing what to do." This should not
be surprising from an evolutionary perspective as it is has
proven to be a good strategy to try lots of different ways of
doing things based on a wide variety of asserted determinisms in
search of those which work.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of dissagreement as to what is
meant by "it works," or what exactly it is that people "need" to
know. Is it how to determine the production of physical,
material, concrete lasting things? Is it to determine the
behavior of other people, to know what people will do in reaction
to our behavior?

The dissagreement is undoubtedly representative of the difficulty
of seperating the two. The production of physical things is one
factor among many that affect human behavior. Further the
production of physical things, such as food, is necessary for
human behavior.

The distinction is, however, not trivial. There are very active
and vociferous arguments concerning whether the production of
material stuff should be the criteria for what works, or some
combination of human behavior realized in lasting relationships.
The two criteria may be incompatible.

Another area of dissagreement about what "works" lay in the time
scale employed to render a judgement of whether a determinism has
or has not worked. How long do we maintain the validity of a
determinism before we reach a judgement on its efficacy? For
example, how much time must elapse, or how many events involving
the assertion and testing of a determinism much occur to either
accept or reject a determinism? What if there are, across time
or events, contradictory results? Here again the problem of
deciding what does or does not work comes in again. Cultures
that grow and spread also promote the spread of their
determinisms. This spread may, however, be a short-term
pheonemena that will come to an end. There is no way to know the
final result and thus judgements tend to be based on present
evaluations of costs and benefits.

Arguments about Arguments

It is unfortunate in my humble opinion, that too often the
peripheral issues, the judgements about what criteria is used to
evaluate whether a determinism works or not, obscures the more
fundamental issue of the consumption of determinisms. People tend
to argue about the rightness or wrongness of a course of action
without examining the underlying assertions of determinisms from
which the courses of action are derived. This further obscures
the equally important issue of understanding determinisms. How
arbitrary is the selection of determinisms? How much is the
perpetuation of determinisms the result of its own success,
something on the order of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is the
persistance of a deterministic line of reasoning related to how
unrelated the predictions of the determined causes and outcomes
are to replicable events?

Consider racism. Racism is more than assertions of difference.
Racism involves the assertion that behaviors are biologically
determined and that behavioral capabilities are limited by
something physically present in people with certain physiological
characteristics, something that is transmitted genetically. The
issue of racism becomes very tied to assertions of difference,
however, because there is the existing market, i.e.
predisposition to deterministic thinking, that tends to
extrapolate difference into a determined cause and effect

Consider the racist, especially some of the very contemporary
racists. Where do you find them? Tenured professors at Stanford,
Western Ontario, Harvard. Still in the Southern United States,
unfortunately. A hypothesis: in places where racist determinist
thinking has little consequence for the racist.

Less commonly do you find them in national politics where public
display of racism costs votes, a direct consequence to this
particular kind of determinism.

Consider (pseudo-) Scientific Creationism. Another kind of
determinism. (Just a note - if we held these guys to the
precepts of their theories we could put them to the test by
placing them in front of a Double Big Mac made with British Mad-
Cow beef and they ought to eat it without hesitation - as after
all cows and people do not share any common mammalian ancestor
and thus are distinct seperate kinds of creatures whose diseases
cannot affect each other. I do not doubt that they have a wormy
way out of such conundrums but then we should point out that they
are not sticking to their own epistomoology) One of the
interesting aspects of advocating this particular kind of
determinism is that within the environment they operate,
fundamentalist churches, there is no cost, and considerable
benefit to be derived (by asserting a kind of matyrdom to those
who worship martyrs) from maintaining this particular

Now another one. TV-advertising determinism and the colonization
of sex.

Clyde Davenport quotes Haug:

"Appearance becomes just as important--and practically more so--
than the commodity's being itself. Something that is simply
useful but does not appear to be so, will not sell, while
something that seems to be useful, will sell. Within the system
of selling and buying, the aesthetic illusion--the commodity's
promise of use-value--enters the arena as an independent function
in selling. For economic reasons it is only natural and, under
the pressure of competition, ultimately necessary to gain
technological control over and independent production of this
aesthetic process.
"The commodity's aesthetic promise of use-value thus becomes
an instrument in accumulating money. Its opposite (i.e. exchange
value) interest elicits from the standpoint of exchange-value an
exaggeration of the apparent use-value of the commodity, the more
so because use-value is of secondary importance from the
standpoint of exchange-value. Sensuality in this context becomes
the vehicle of an economic function, the subject and object of an
economically functional fascination. Whoever controls the
product's appearance can control the fascinated public by
appealing to them sensually." (p. 17)

Comment: Is the above not simply the assertion that people are
susceptible to mis-attributing use-value to exchanges through the
creation of deterministic, but invalid, predictions?

I prefer this description of the commodification process to the
one advanced by John McCreery based on an earlier Marxism. Use
value exists, naturally, but use value becomes as a *practical*
matter mere appearance. What counts is not use value itself, but
the *promise* of use value, a use value which itself is
exaggerated. This describes the process of how capitalism is
able to "colonize" the concrete life-world of ordinary
experience. For example, food becomes the *promise* of food,
with the image of *food* becoming more delicious than the actual
*food* we eat. Sex becomes the *promise* of sex through
exaggerated images of total sexuality, which are more stimulating
than any real experience of sexuality could be.

Comment: The "promise" that Davenport is alluding to here must be
only that, a "promise" that is not fulfilled. Davenport is here
asserting that people are susceptible to making false inferences
about the use-value of advertised things. While the capacity of
people to make invalid inferences has been aptly demonstrated by
cognitive psychologists the larger question is whether this is
unique to capitalism.


The notion that commodities "promise" use value also allows us to
integrate linguistic theories (here excluding Baudrillard's
notion of the fusing of the sign and commodity as a "linguistic"
theory in that it is more global in scope: it is more semiotic
than linguistic) into our perspective on commodification. A
"promise" as a speech act relies on the consensual nature of our
linguistic interaction: our communication with others is
oriented to reaching understanding. In simpler words, a promise
in this case means we are saying that we will deliver the goods,
and we are making known this commitment by using the
conventionalized act of "promising." In advertising, though, a
perlocutionary act is being performed. A perlocutionary act,
unlike an illocutionary act, is intended to create an effect in
the hearer. In other words, advertisements are intended to get
us to buy a product. However, in order to achieve our
perlocutionary effect, usually we must conceal our intention to
create such an effect. Thus, perlocutionary effects are achieved
through the strategic use of illocutions: we make it seem that
we are using language communicatively when, in fact, our hidden
intention is to create some effect in the other. It is in this
sense only--that advertisements are perlocutions that
strategically use an illocutionary form--that it can be said that
advertising is "parasitic." And the lie advertising creates
rests in the difference between the smooth, shining image of the
commodity and the actual bit of packaged materiality which you
buy. [The discussion of the illocution and perlocution is based
on Habermas's treatment of speech act theory in his _The Theory
of Communicative Action, Volume One: Reason and the
Rationalization of Society, Beacon Press, 1984, pp. 290-295.]

Comment: In reading this I find some difficulty in seeing any
difference here between advertising in capitalism and
communication in general. For example:

"Thus, perlocutionary effects are achieved through the strategic
use of illocutions: we make it seem that we are using language
communicatively when, in fact, our hidden intention is to create
some effect in the other."

When is communication otherwise? Further, when is communication
devoid of the metaphorical use of physical things, the material
world that we can experience in common and that we must use
metaphorically, through analogy, etc... to express the non-
material, the ephemeral electro-magnetic buzzz in human minds?

Further, what is the difference in contemporary advertising and
the kinds of convincing it took to create monumental
architecture? What kind of promises were subsumed in zigarauts?
pyramids? the forbidden city? Were these promises realized? or
were they as empty as some of those beamed into living rooms?

And what of post-modernism? Is it another empty promise? Does it
advertise promises of greater understanding that may be empty as
well? Do we find here another determinism to be consumed? The
over-determination of visual icons to such a degree that this
period in human history is unique from all others? Is this
assertion just the attempt to create another determinism to be
sold and consumed, television determinism? Plato thought that
all the poets ought to be banished for the same reasons.