Excellence – The Mediocrity of Excellencies and Excellence of Mediocrity

The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.[1]

Those who know me well, can understand what it means when I write: I do not know since when I am living here now; I do not know if it is for a long time, a small eternity or if I actually just a arrived, still trying to get used to things and developing routines. Those who know me well are aware of the fact that time, units on the calendar, are just like numbers: only meaningful in their uniqueness which is only given by being just a dot on an endless scale.

We may measure it by looking at the time it takes to establish routines … ? Well, it does only take a couple of days to find the right bar where I don’t have to ask for a cappuccino but where I am rhetorically asked Cappuccino? … E mangiare … quale? Right, I do not have the same cornetto everyday, and this is of course part of the routine, quickly established. (Only one of the girls in my ‘Sunday-bar’ still doesn’t know but occasionally I think this may have some special reason.)

And all seems to be so unique when entering a new stage – unique as well in the sense of routines. The other …, well the other seems to be sovereign, able to adapt every day to it: to the new day, not being caught in the need of a straight way, entering the new world. But this uniqueness may be challenged, a sligth irritation. And this challenge is not coming from somebody else ‘entering this new world’, but by somebody who is a firm part of it, exactly by the near-to-irrevocable character of the routine:

7:07 a.m. in the bar – the usual chat between people or the “intimate silence between people”

7:08, looking up, the barman says something: ‘strange, something wrong? New year, new habit perhaps’ – somebody is missed

7:10, two minutes later than usual the door opens and ‘he’ steps in: the ragazzo who had been missed as he always arrives at 7:08, always: since one year, two years, 5 years or even longer?

Two minutes, occasionally even in the eternal city two minutes nay be a small eternity.

Measuring the time by looking at how long it takes to get used to the nuisances and ignorances (not sure why the rule for ‘correct language’ does only know the singular: ignorance) …– eternity would be too short in many cases to get used (and possibly this is the reason behind the fact that the auto-spell check allows eternities, i.e. the plural of eternity although one eternity lasts already …, well eternal). Bureaucratic norms, complains about them, affluence in a poor city, … or poverty in a rich city? And even accepting and living certain rules may still after years and decades end in stating – loud or not: really (you know the one I mean: rrrrrrreaaaaaaally? Actually expressing some kind of ‘I cannot believe it though I know it is true’). Traffic in Rome is surely one of these ‘rrrrrrreaaaaaaally?-stories’. For instance when looking at the car that is parked over night in the ‘second row’, half of the tail reaching into the roundabout; or the other, parked half on the zebra-crossing, half reaching into the roundabout. And if you are still baby-Roman, you may naively mention it, as if it would be something special – the answer is simple

You know why they do it (, don’t you)? Thus they save the parking fee ….

Oh Mama Mia e Maria – Gloria Patri et in Excelsis Deo, it is a stupid question – and after experiencing everyday’s little war: a herd of tiny (and not so tiny) scooters against the army of tiny (and not so tiny) cars, I surely should know that there are other rules than those established in the highway code.

I wrote earlier about it, in the Diary from a Journey into another World. Diaries against nationalism, inspired by trying to overcome personal resentments:

Viva, si permaneces y esperas, morirás de hambre a la muerte – comenzar a luchar. Again I make the experience that learning the exact, the lived rules of traffic is one of the most important parts of intercultural learning. No book and especially no law book will tell us. And the knowledge of getting every single day one day closer to death has to be translated: Come, Grim Reaper – I want to look into your eyes.

And now all this reminds me of another daily occurrence that still attracts my attention: at a certain time, there are different spots where you can see it, for instance along the Tiber: a flock of birds – I am not sure: sparrows? Lorenzo says swallows, only spending short time in Rome before migrating further south. One hears the noise and sees a dark cloud, changing formation, changing the degree of darkness between nearly black and a light grey, seemingly moving with an amazing speed and nevertheless equally seemingly standing. One flock? Or several of these ‘clouds’? Merging and separating from each other, also a move of compression and dissolution … –  isn’t depression a word that comes closer to mind as antonym for compression?

*****

Routines – and the many things that still seem exceptional, sooooo exciting; and the other things that will probably never loose their attraction of being special …. – excellence and mediocrity. Time found – and always loosing it. Sure, we all have our ‘own time’; there is such a good reason to ask What time is it there? as Tsai Ming-liang does it in his film. – Don’t we have all ‘our own time’?

History – big history, Braudel’s ‘three planes’ and finally personal history cannot be changed, also because they happen for particular reasons. Here we have to reason about differences: if we perceive things and truth differently, and if we see certain things and overlook others, do certain things and do them in a specific way, it is not because ‘we want to’, we decide in this or another way but it is because we produce and reproduce us and with it them …. – and we do this with the ‘material we have’, being drawn and pushed by it, seeing here some kind of invisible hand. It is not the one proposed by Smith which obviously doesn’t exist at least in his understanding. It is an invisible hand that allows us to look at 101 one monuments, only seeing 1. There are only few monuments with more than one person looking at it (it only happens in galleries, 100 visitors standing, gazing at La Gioconda, only 1 standing in the next room, being smiled at by a small, seemingly mousy person of the same master’s hand – yes, man make their own history but not choosing – we know it from Karl Marx’ 18th Brumaire anyway.

Time, in this perspective, is probably something in between: part of the dialectical tension of moving and movement and being moved: pulled and pushed I mean … – unspectacular single acts being the only thing we can look at, trying to understand from there the entirety and even eternity: starting from learning the rules we are facing every day and in the best cases learning at the very same time all the ‘small and daily infringements’. Sure, the traffic light is red – but is that a sufficient reason to stop? – And it is still this movement, exciting us in the daily gossip.

A short time? Or a long time?

*****

It definitely had been a short time after I moved in: the truck had been here in the morning, bringing some of my stuff, mainly books. Sure, such a move seems to be just unique, only happening to the one person who considers (against better knowledge) that nobody else has a similar or even the same experience. And even if it is actually a very common thing, one perceives it as unique: challenging, the need to deal with everything – and allowing this feeling of uniqueness to grow, it seems to reach even further: god created the world, I am creating a new home, a castle if not even a fortress which for some does not have to be of brigs and mortar …

…. A Mighty Fortress is our God.

Is not exactly this the permanent challenge since we invented ourselves as individuals? Sure, cutting the strings from god had been a simple thing to the extent to which we replaced her by the new god, named I, only allowing the company of the me, my and myself; and of course ultimately accompanied by and expressed in the tin-god money. Mind, not everything had been new – money had been already admonished in 666 by Sophocles

Money! Nothing worse in our lives, so current, rampant, so corrupting. Money – you demolish cities, rot men from their homes, you train and twist good minds and set them on to the most atrocious schemes. No limit, you make them adept at every kind of outrage, every godless crime – money.

Leaving this idolisation aside, we may have a look at a paradox emerging from merging this new independence and individualisation: though everybody is now established and establishing him-/herself as god-like (who else should be god) and unique (as individual it is not just that everything is about me, it is also about us [yes, us: I, me and myself] being the ultimate …, well: incarnation of the standard) that mediocrity is the new excellence. The merger is so close that we easily forget the fact of dealing with two moments: secularisation and individualisation.

Sure, it is a bit awkward writing, even thinking about it: everything I state about and criticise in ‘the other’, is in actual fact something I state about and criticise as part of myself.[2] But what can honesty do …? – Swallow – only sparrows can resist, accepting the fact of being outsiders.

Time to come back to the truck: the king of the road,[3] parked on the little back-road near to the centre of this bit more then 2.5-million-city to offload my stuff. I didn’t dare to offer my help, just asked

Can you please position the vehicle in a way that allows moving the pallets directly on the driveway in front of the house?

He could not, just because he did not want to … – Not telling the entire story, his service – professional and excellent of course – ended in translating ‘from-door-to-door’ to ‘from-door-on-the-road-in front-of-the house’. This left me with the bill and the task to carry the stuff from the street to the little drive way in front of my palace (yes, all Romans live in a palace as much as all Germans drive a Merc – the latter had been what I had been told when arriving in Ireland many years back; and all Irish have red hair and all Chinese make a bow instead of shaking hands and all French drink wine and all Cubans smoke cigars and… and all migrants lost their manners as they lost all standards, while trying to adapt to all the actually lived prejudices). Back to the driveway: from there I had to get the stuff into the rooms which would be the library at some stage later. This excellent service (at this stage you will remember: excellence is a synonym for mediocrity) had been made even more delightful for me by two facts:

  • imagine carrying a box of books that is twice as large as the box that professionals use for transporting books;
  • and then imagine to undertake this work while the thermometer had not been lazy, climbing up to somewhere between 35 and 40 degree.

The excellence had been completed as the RAS-excellence resulted in many books damaged: if it does not fit make it fitting. I have to admit that it is purely my ignorance that I did not fully recognise the RAS-excellence. On occasion of a later inquiry I had been told there would not be any reason to complain as ‘we managed much larger removals, including those for the Irish government.’ – Well, the Irish government is surely a warrantor of excellence, even keeping the dead tiger up instead of putting it to rest – the Irish people are still paying the cost for the mummification.

*****

Change of the scene, not of the scenery. Such a relief then – and I will not forget it – when somebody came. He introduced himself by offering me a sack truck.

Sorry, I have to go back to work now. But when I am back later, I will give you a hand. …. I am Zaid, living on the other floor. Welcome here in …

No, he didn’t say palace. Indeed, he came back later and gave me a hand – so at least at some stage the books had been in my flat. – And I surely had been flat: carrying books and some other stuff is not an activity that one needs for a couple of hours, even less when exposed to such temperatures.

Well, things have to be done – and another thing for the time to come had been to get the stuff out of the boxes. This means of course to get the boxes out of the way. As excellence means today: you have to get rid of the packing material – the idea of recycling, using it for the next transport is not part of the hauler’s understanding of professional work, it is just a matter of odds and sods. So: getting books out of the boxes, ‘parking’ the empty boxes in front of the apartment before bringing them to the bin (yes, a recycling bin). … The bell rings

I (am the owner of the apartment 2) – are the boxes at the stairs yours?

Actually I could nearly save the nodding.

Could you please remove them as soon as possible

– and actually he adds

‘no problem’

the expression of Sozi’s utmost humbleness and kindness. (It is just a name – and it shows that nomen non est omen: any resonance of Sozi in terms as social or even socialism is a mere expression of remaining on pure surface.

Well, all this may be understood as personal failure of a hauler and a matter of character, bad and good behaviour etc. And surely it is. But as we are all gods now, we have to live with it: our and their little egos, ritzy without limit – as it is coined by the emancipation from divine power being limited by its individualist character which easily transforms excellence into mediocrity. And of course, the wisdom of this system has an integrated protection as mentioning it – i.e. experiencing it as own personal characteristic or criticising it as characteristic of others – is self-destructive. Nietzsche knows and so does Adorno. …

It is of course easy to see all this in the wider context – as social scientists we are occasionally allowed to do it – and as depersonalised statement (‘it is not me who says it – it is just the facts that show it’; and ‘it is not about real people like you and me, it is about some abstract social existence’): The easy way out is a derivate of the Cartesian paradigm: I think by only recognising that, what exists only what I can see, recognise in its immediacy, does exist. And that means, I only look at the other as individual and as such as an exception. Or I look at the generalised other that does not exist in reality.

In social science the easy way out is the degeneration of social research: a matter of empirio- criticism and suicide.

The problem of recognising this is the underlying dialectics: as much as we are dealing with the result of a secular process of de-deified individualisation, we are also dealing with a process of individualising self-deification. Put less harsh (yes, I do not like being part of it, and I know no reader likes to see him/herself this way), we can detect this vicious circle by expressing it in its economic formula, well known as M-C-M’:[4] the permanent resolution of self-reflexive dissolution. Cogito ergo non sum, lost in mediocrity or the exponential growth of consumption. It is detached from the social dimension as far as it appears as consumption without production; and it is further de-socialised as it actually looses its use-value – even if the latter is not completely the case, it is at least a shift of the relationship. We can assume that the ‘original product’, in a non-capitalist, non-exchange oriented society had been composed as[5]

100 uv – 000 ev

It had not been individual production of goods for individuals but social production where production itself had been a social process: the production of needs and the way towards answering them.

This relationship may be re-modelled as

50 uv – 50 ev

in an idealised ‘original capitalism’: idealised as such model suggests a perfect market where demand is defined by actual needs and supply completely and instantaneously matching such demand. The further development – not based on changing behaviour but as matter of economic logic – pushes to a decrease of uv in favour of ev so that the consumerist society in its (impossible) idealised full development can be expressed by

000 uv – 100 ev

It is an (impossible) idealised state as finally nobody will buy only products without any use value (mind, this does not deny that we probably all buy some products that are entirely without use value in the strict sense, actually they are useless).

Sure, the argument is in this form typical for economics – simplified and reduced on its functioning within the ceteris paribus framework of a limited number of products asked for and an equally limited number of suppliers of these and only these products, framed by the ‘perfect market’.

  • In reality competition is a factor changing the model calculation;

and additional variables are relevant too:

  • the fact that markets are never perfect by way of information, time needed to adapt ….
  • the occurrence of mediators
  • the production being even under capitalist conditions, highly characterised by alienation and depending on the market to actually realise the value on the  conditions and the determination of use value still being an immediately social process
  • needs not being solely defined by their physical dimension but for instance also as by the fact of being positional goods, merit or demerit goods etc.
  • and just to add one further point, still without being exhaustive, power as market power, political power, hegemonic power etc., all decisively co-defining ‘needs’ as a normative fundamental and general consensus.

But we find some cunning of reason – more or less opposite to the Hegelian one: complexity is reduced and the concrete in its true sense is made to fade away. As we know from Karl Marx’s Outline of the Critique of Political Economy (Grundrisse)

The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception.

And of course, communication with the product itself – the reduction of communication on the circle M-C-M(‘) – is taken out of the socio-interactive process, reduced on the ‘reflexive’ process of the individual who (or do we even have to say: which?) is the commodified self. It is dominated by names – though they are nameless like character masks, securing a very specific understanding of the invisible hand: an economy that moves on without substantial orientation, relationships that remain on the surface. It is here, where today’s social science really feels home – and today referring to the era, going beyond the hic et nunc. We may remember the words from the 3rd volume of Capital – well, it is chapter 48, talking about The Trinity Formula:

Vulgar economy actually does no more than interpret, to systematise and defend in doctrinaire fashion the conception of the agents of bourgeois production who are entrapped in bourgeois production relations. It should not surprise us, then, that vulgar economy feels particularly at home in the estranged outward appearances of economic relations in which these prima facie absurd and perfect contradictions appear …[6]

And we may replace economy by social science – oblate empiricism and contemporalism now claiming excellence where

these relationships seem the more self-evident the more their relationships are concealed from it, although they are understandable to the popular mind.[7]

But indeed

all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided.[8]

Well, the only conclusion one can arrive at is the following: some academics are – if not as human being so at least as academics – exactly this:

superfluous as much as they see the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coinciding.

*****

We can see this in a rather interesting divide: consumerism – and it had been said before that this is the proposed point of reference – is commonly understood as the (reasonably) high-end consumption. Probably one of the most perverse expressions could be seen some years ago in Brussels: a shop selling all the big names, displaying in the window these designer products and …., Klein’s book No Logo, the latter of course as decoration. And the book surely is some decoration of the academic approach to analysing economic processes. What is less obvious – or we may have to say: what is less openly and manifestly perceived – is the other side: today’s economies are, in different forms, factually resting on the pillars of some form of shadow economy, ranging from the illegal production in the sweatshops and the sale of their goods to established street-traders. Maintaining the poor who are not properly integrated into the supply side of the formal economy and also maintaining the poor who are not properly integrated into the demand side of the formal economy. It is not even clear where to draw the exact line, as many ‘discounters’ are surely some hybrids. Excellence also in this way, offering the generics: who dares to clearly detect the original and the faked Vuitton, Gucci, Bvulgari, Rado and Prada etc. pp. (those not mentioned here may be proud – but they should not be so as the true Mafia is hidden anyway). The blurring of borders may be especially interesting – though visible – in the cases of the equality of structure: looking at some models the only difference between VW, Audi and Seat etc. being the label; many years at least computers sold as IBM-compatible which at the end didn’t mean anything else than excellence under a different name – disguise of monopolies. Sure, you may turn the fact in two ways: the excellence of the original spreading, being offered by all the others; or the others being as good as the excelling ones but not being able to present themselves in the same manner. Of course one may say that it does not matter. But it actually does matter in a very fundamental way as much as excellence is becoming mediocre. Traditional economics sees all boats rising; realism suggests that all boats are drowning but some of them are able to cope well under water: the ‘better than’ is made up by the veneration of exponential growth of hiding actual adoration of exchange value behind pretended use value. As presented as the ideal case

000 uv – 100 ev

* Look at today’s computers, compare the specifications with the machines we used 10, 20 years ago – you laugh when remembering that KBs had been a relevant seize, relevant as today MBs and GBs; and you may cry if you consider that there is not really so much more that we do with these tremendously increased capacities of which most of us use only a small portion anyway. This does not mean that there is no progress at all; it only means that this progress is actually very limited. In other words, exponential growth on the side of exchange value is met by marginal growth rates (yes, there is some truth even in the thinking of marginalism and cardinal utility scale; especially when it comes to the added value on the side of the growth of added use value, in particular ‘Gossen’s First Law’ – acknowledging this does not mean to follow Jevons or Walras).

* Look at the relative increase of speed of communication: the use of telegraph increased the efficiency of communication by 2,500 times if related to the snail mail; relating internet-communication and FAX we find an increase of efficiency by 5.[9]

* Look at the qualification – the increase of people holding a degree, a PhD, a professorship …, all being more a reflection of an increase of courses offered (=sold) and a reflection of the formalised structuration of career patterns than being a reflection of qualification.

*****

Sure, quality control is at hand.

One example is that of ISO norms. The simplified, still true, mechanisms is: define your own norms, i.e. say how you want to work and what you see as good performance – if you fulfil these norms you are excellent. Two instructions for practice: (1) set the norms slightly higher than what you are going to achieve so that you can always push being better next time: you push your (co)workers and/or you push your customers with the next product which is better than the best: the washing powder that makes the washing whiter than white; the health care service that makes you healthier than healthy; the financial and insurance service that offers more than 100 % profit and more than security. (2) make sure that nobody thinks about the death poll that allows the 110, 150, 500 %. Especially if we consider that it is possible that we are still alive although we are brain-dead and the body is already decomposing – yes, you have to see it before you believe it. One instruction for advanced practice: Do not talk about the conditions behind the successful achievement. For instance, a service for homeless people may suggest: 30 percent of the people who used the shelter will not return. Achieving this figure is important even if 5 percent of potential returners died: the main thing is that they did not return – do not worry, social policy is not about ‘being good’, it is about maintaining societies ability to handle in which way ever injustice. If you want to blame me …, well, being cynical is one thing; analysing realities and stating the results[10] is another …

You may remember the words from the first volume of Capital:

Capital is said by a Quarterly Reviewer to fly turbulence and strife, and to be timid, which is very true; but this is very incompletely stating the question. Capital eschews no profit, or very small profit, just as Nature was formerly said to abhor a vacuum. With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10 per cent. will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 per cent. certain will produce eagerness; 50 per cent., positive audacity; 100 per cent. will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent., and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged. If turbulence and strife will bring a profit, it will freely encourage both. Smuggling and the slave-trade have amply proved all that is here stated. (Dunning)

Yes, it is the fact that capital is not a commodity like any other; instead,

Ces pressions et mouvements renvoient à tout le système de domination des capitaux et des marchés. Le capital n’est pas une simple propriété privée de moyens de production, laquelle existe dans le système esclavagiste par exemple. Il est constitue par la propriété d’argent pour faire plus d’argent, comme l’a montré Marx, en passent par son utilisation dans la production. Cela passe aussi par l’utilisation de l’argent et des ressources d’autrui, par le crédit et le marché financier.[11]

The situation is of course a bit more complicated when we move to the deeper level. We may say that we find a shift of the definition. The use value is now shifting in two ways: first, the additional ‘use value’ is an increase of idolatry – not new, if you remember Sophocles’ words quoted earlier, and not new if you remember Aristotle’s distinction between Oikonomia and Chrematistike (and although it is not new, the conditions are new, making it impossible to simply return to the status quo ante. Indeed, there is no point in trying to recall the ‘good old values’ – as little as there is any point in claiming a noble status in academia when entering from management, and referring to a formal ‘von’, ‘de’, ‘van’, ‘della’ or ‘Lord’ …). Second, the use value is shifting from the consumer to the producer: frequent travellers who do not have secretarial support will know the amount of hours they spend for checking flights and accommodation, booking, check-in etc.; there is little temptation for the ordinary online-banker to feel like a big broker, it is more like being a slave of not-really known procedures, in the best case resulting in saving few cents instead of leaving as self-made millionaire; online-shoppers are aware of the fact that there are algorithms, perfectly matching what google, amazon and the thousands of others want what to sell with what you did not know as your desire – just one click away and paradise is closer again (sure, exponential further steps to be made, each just one click away …); and though ‘we know how they work’ we easily click … and … swallow, fulfilling the role of the chased animal that, caught in the trap, still feels as king and queen: not as customer anymore but now the fat stock of the emperor who permanently offers new clothes and new names for the death traps.

Another mechanism of control: peer reviews and academic standards. Admittedly and importantly they had been established as instruments to protect us from the old feudal lords – sure, feudal not because of the power based in any title representing nobility, but feudal because of the academic title. We probably know all about it, acknowledging it to some extent, being annoyed by it on various occasions. In any case, there are some issues barely talked about:

* a German colleague – well he claims to be – founds a publishing house after one of his manuscripts had been turned down

* a German colleague manipulating the result of a PhD-candidate he supervised – it is claimed as case that needs to be ‘justified in respect of the colleague who supervised the work over several years’

* the establishing of a new hegemonic system that makes ‘social policy’ at a Lithuanian university expressis verbis to ‘social technology”

* the renaming of a government department in Ireland, now having the remit of education and skills – at least honest in clearly stating that the knowledge society is in actual fact part of the move to the strictly divided society. Divided between skilled people, reduced to function as annex of machines and a small elite, itself subordinated under the rule of the algorithm once set into motion. – You do not believe it? May be you are right and I just read to much H.G. Wells Time Machine

* a Hungarian student asking for a letter that clarifies to third parties why his marks in my class are not in line with the marks he got in other classes (actually he had been one of the brightest in class but then the letter) – he needed the letter as he wanted to produce it when applying for a grant; having written what I did and felt obliged to write, basically translates into: the marks he received for the work in my class are not especially low; on the contrary it means that at least in my opinion the marks in all other classes had been too generous – an inflation of high marks which is frequently admitted by several colleagues

* the need to use software to detect plagiarism, happening at countless universities in Europe if not worldwide  – as if plagiarism would be a simple matter of copy and paste, instead of being a matter of lacking originality and the ability to make an argument.
Sure, Wikipedia may be a useful instrument in some respect – but whereas the old encyclopédistes understood themselves as contestants of values for a better world, here and now, the new wikicyclopaedists apparently lost any sense of and for reality. Or is there any other way to interpret a statement like this?

This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page.

Yes, of course, the wiki-world should be reduced on one issue at a time, relationlity grasped by ‘links’.

This article needs additional citations for verification. (September 2011)

Of course, if you say anything, it is only valid if somebody else states the same

This article contains wording that promotes the subject in a subjective manner without imparting real information. (September 2011)

Found here

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashion

– and probably changed at some time more or less soon.

The suggestion of value-freedom, the idea of societies without real subjects as we would not have heard and discussed it ad nauseam. And – perhaps paradoxically – it ends in the new gods recognising the fear again, now looking for new comfort, replacing the intellectual by the strict believer, replacing the condemning inquisitor by somebody who, apparently deeply moved, answers the question

Who is Jorge Mario Bergolio?

with the words

I do not know what might be the most fitting description …. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.

This makes Pope Francesco surely more winsome as the new-born infallible princes; and with this he presents himself as somebody who apparently learned – as he definitely had been dangerously political sinner in Argentina and he admitted to have sinned. And we may do what the supposed god did: forgiving him (and all the others) who failed. But I leave that debate to them – I am not and will not be part of that family [so help me god ;-)].

*****

Something else is the moaning of the new gods that …., bemoaning the loss of their privileges, complaining about the fact that their pedestal is made crumbling away instead of acknowledging the fact that this platform had been established on questionable ground.

As this act wears thin , the running down of the middle class leaves us with little but a professional political class flailing around trying to act normally and looking more and more bizarre in the process.[12]

Indeed, for some it is a sign of distress

seeing Marx quoted in everything from the Daily Mail to the Spectator

For others the distress lies in the way in which Marx is quoted … (or even to recognise that Marx is actually not quoted in the linked The Spectator-article.

Still, nice is to see in the present context the reference to Voltaire who (supposedly? – of course, I cannot really check, let alone know everything) said about the British classes – they

are like their own beer; froth on top, dregs at bottom, the middle excellent

(We leave the assessment of the bottom without discussion and only recommend various Dickens-works and the reading of Engels view on The Condition of the Working Class in England. And on this occasion we also do not question Voltaire’s stance on the British middle classes – various Dickens-texts may recommend revision though).

*****

Now, coming back, the list of the claims by the new gods (and the claims of people and institutions being new gods), could be continued ad ultimo, but  it would not change much at the final result – taking up on Voltaire: people striving to be part of the froth. Indeed, it is in this way that they may undermine democracy: the attempt to completely enter the illusionary world of free market competition and excellence based thereupon.

Methodological individualism is not just about the suggestion that

in sociological work these collectivities[13] must be treated as solely the resultants and modes of organization of the particular acts of individual persons, since these alone can be treated as agents in a course of subjectively understandable action.[14]

We see the problematique of such approach even if we accept the limitation to economics, when looking at Jospeh Schumpeter who claimed that reproaches critiques, stating that

[t]he society they deal with is one which admits private ownership of factors of production, but retains a control of production and distributes the national product according to the principle of efficiency. Land-owners and capitalists have to submit to this social control, and really are land-owners and capitalists only in so far as they receive rent and interest. Every one, so to speak, keeps his factor of production, but gets his orders from society as to what to do with it; or, to put it differently, every one is regarded according to the social appreciation of what he produces.[15]

It is indeed a challenge to go – in thinking and acting – beyond the capitalist economy. So Schumpeter himself claims that

[i]t is further claimed that in a non-communistic state no reality corresponds to the concept of social values and social wants properly so called.[16]

Without exhaustively discussing this, at least the following points are of importance:

* production – in the understanding highlighted by Marx in the Grundrisse[17]is not just about the production of commodities and the distribution of wealth that is defined by the availability of commodities – thus suggesting that

[m]arginal utilities determine prices and the demand and the supply of each commodity; and prices, finally, tell us much else, and, above all, how the social process of distribution will turn out.[18]

It is, instead, the production of social relationships itself that has to be considered as value, or even merely as fact – and here we have to look at both, the process of production and the structures emerging from it. Commodities, utilities etc. are surely an important but by no way a sufficient moment.[19] In other words, methodological individualism is thoroughly caught in the understanding that the entire life – individually and socially – can be reduced on production and exchange of products, in fact leaving productive consumption and distribution outside of the equation.

* This means as well that methodological individualism is based on the idea of (the legitimacy of) externalisation – of course first and foremost by way of production but consequently also in respect of relations – contract law is probably the ultimate proof, especially taken in connection with the fact of the wide range of application of contractual thinking. This goes hand in hand with the emphasis of utility production as ultimate point of reference.

* Part of this externalisation is about the definition of what is relevant: different to the understanding of economic processes as fundamental, determining in the last instance, i.e. dialectically the superstructure (as in the Marxian understanding of the basis-superstructure relationship), the economy is in the present case seen as dominant in a different way: it is the ultimate measure, taken mechanically as indicator for the entirety of existence.

* Also juxtaposing individual and society seems to be disingenuous: this way the relationality of the social as matter of structures and processes is faded out.

These are, N.B., exactly the shortcomings of approaches that suggest today for instance methods of management intra-organisational knowledge-sharing by a reference to an ‘imagined common good’, instead of bravely embarking on the understanding of the social as processual structuration (as in more fundamental terms for instance Roy Bhaskar does with his dialectical critical realism). The usefulness of systemic thinking has to be defined by the ability to deal with complexity, not by the orientation on borders and environment, systems and sub-systems.

In fact, methodological individualism is a general sentiment that had been established a long time ago, and actually not finding its foundation in academia that is directed to skills, having institutionally expelled generating knowledge as core task. Sure, it is a double-edged sword – but permanently sharpening the one side of the blade by the new aristocrats called a million times and more I, me, myself and bureaucratic hedging while blunting the other by permanently excluding any claim towards fundamental innovation, is not the way to deal with a contradiction – it is, instead, a matter of contraction. And this contraction is rooted in the idea of contractualism as principle that relates free individuals to each other instead of establishing and securing genuine social relationships.

The representatives of the new nobility, surely dangerous enough, are in this game at the end just meaningless string-puppets, perhaps even believing in their sobriety and honesty – what else can they do as self-styled gods: emancipated from deity, and lost in the fear of power which indeed nobody can claim to hold. What made god or the gods supposedly impeccable? Nothing else than the presumption that they (are authorised to) control the social. Remember, here the social is understood as

an outcome of the interaction between people (constituted as actors) and their constructed and natural environment. Its subject matter refers to people’s interrelated productive and reproductive relationships. In other words, the constitutive interdependency between processes of self-realisation and processes governing the formation of collective identities is a condition for the social and its progress or decline.[20]

But now we arrived at another point: the new social being transformed into a self-established actor, tyrannising his/her constructed and natural environment.

The new subject matter referring to independent and permanent self-re-production – the new narcissism, attracted by nothing and nobody than the trinity of I, me and myself – not changed by a possible qualification of the ideas behind for, from or through; the capitalist commodity-society does not only replicate this pattern but it moves it further, perfects it in form of the indispensible self-defence of mediocrity by claiming excellence.

It is this new ‘nobility’ – as said it may actually be about people who still consider themselves as honest and good, but as their understanding of good is that of a new god, the new infallibility is actually fading away before being spelled out. It may be telling that for sending relevant, i.e. morally extortive mails, some people use their private mail-address, somewhere in a cloud, hiding their arrogant mediocrity by singing the eternal

alte Entsagungslied,
Das Eiapopeia vom Himmel,
Womit man einlullt, wenn es greint,
Das Volk, den großen Lümmel.

Well, the

heavenly lullaby,
The old song of abnegation,
By which the people, this giant fool,
Is lulled from its lamentation.

The new gods, cocooning in their privacy.

And feeling personally attacked if they are “recognised” in real terms, not in terms of the inflated currency. Of course, as they are usually themselves drivers of inflation they have to insist in this way: in one way or another we may have to accept the inflation – and of course any deflationary policies on the individual level are difficult. It seems to be easier to live with a lie than to die with an honest statement. The truth of John Maynard Keynes deserves not only consideration when it comes to thinking about Monetary Reform – you remember his words?

But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.[21]

There is another interesting and important point we can take from the same academic – though stated in a different, i.e. not primarily academic – context. I take the quote and the context from a reflection on the Battle of the dons of war, dealing with the

intellectual ‘self-mobilisation’

academics which (or are they still ‘who’s?) degenerated to beasts on the field of mendacity.

In February 1916, despite being exempt from combatant service because of his ‘work of national importance’ at the Treasury, Keynes insisted on applying for exemption on the grounds of conscientious objection to the war. On January 4 he told Ottoline Morrell he wished for ‘a general strike and a real uprising to teach I those bloody men who enrage and humiliate us’. He told Duncan Grant in December 1917: ‘I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal.’

Yes, we may say there is another war today: the one that wants to push mediocrity, skills orientation and the fact that aims are stylised as gains and achievements under the heading of excellence, thus drowning truth and honesty in froth.

And it is interesting in this context, again looking back, that it is

[t]rue, Russell’s opposition to the war cost him a fellowship at Trinity College.

And still, Bertrand Russell is surely one that – in the long run – did not die in terms of being an influential thinker, even in today’s terms, different to the many self-stylised, dishonest want-to-be-celebrities. And still, we find those who take responsibility as serious matter, also today.

*****

There is surely a major continuity if we look at the long and medium term-history. In some way much of what Herbert Marcuse, exploring the capitalist anthropology in a presentation titled Man in a Socialised World[22] is still fundamentally valid. He highlights the following issues as characterising the current anthropological Zeitgeist, pertaining in modern capitalist economies:

  • life is presented and perceived as plight and alienation
  • however, there is a ‘better life’: the satisfaction of needs and wants as remuneration of labour – though suffering is the irretrievable foundation of happiness
  • life is a matter of striving for being – and the substance of life is productivity with and in favour of society
  • refined values are separated from ever day’s life, from the daily performance. Finding to yourself is left for the time outside of work.

In Marcuse’s explication we find not least the anthropological gist of what Karl Marx explored as matter of specifically capitalist production, namely that

[t]he worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself[23].

Still, there is also a major shift between Marcuse’s time and now: today it is claimed that the better life should be here and now. There would be nothing wrong with it if … – if it would not be based on a wrong assumption and a wrong claim.

The wrong assumption is that previously the world had been better. There may be some truth in it

* one went to university in order to deeply study a subject, approaching a study from different sides or even delving into various subject areas – well, not one but indeed a few only: third level education had been very much an elitist undertaking before the invention of the mass-university

* reviewers – namely the senior academics in their secure tenured positions – knew what they had been talking about: and just required the acceptance of this knowledge before allowing junior staff to ‘assist’, carrying the briefcase had been the first step towards carrying the same knowledge, already then making it extremely difficult for new ideas to enter before receiving the authoritative blessing …

* though not everybody, at least many could rely on a safety net: from cradle to grave – the price had been for many in the extreme cases to get to work as soon as they had been able to walk, and ideally to walk themselves from the factory gate across the street to the graveyard; and the price had been that even this did not apply to those who had been forced to stand outside of the system, in another country for example; or having a radically different worldview …

* though social rights had been defined and calculable, they had been so by way of an extremely tight bureaucratic structure.

Coming to the wrong claim, it is about re-establishing the old privileges of the middle class. One may say there is not so much wrong with this – but such claim can only be maintained as long as this middle class actually has exactly this consciousness: being mediocre in a positive way: being one of the pillars on which society rests, the other and major pillar being the working class. Now the working class had been redefined, being (=made feeling to be) middle-class; and the middle-class having been ‘promoted’, granted the status of excellence as matter of superiority, and entering a special form of suicide: life is not happening where it is properly located in every day as

people’s interrelated productive and reproductive relationships.

It is reduced on the little apostrophe of the economic process that had been outlined earlier:

M-C-M’

And it translates ideally into the formula

10 uv – 220 ev

The figures 10 and 220 are randomly chosen; important is that in any case such difference of (in this case then) 210 is a solid foundation for the different crises: financial crisis, banking crisis, housing crisis, budget crisis …; but also more fundamental occurrences as the frequently reoccurring anomie; the environmental threats; the renewed search for meaning and research around issues as quality of life, social quality etc.

*****

Sure, one can take it as comfort: our parents and their parents … – they complained all about these and similar issue; and our children repeat this pattern very much. But one may also take it as frightening development: where change should be about improvement, it is actually about something else: growing inequality, not rooted in injustice of the redistribution. Instead it is rooted in the fundamentally ‘wrong’ distributive function of the productive system itself, showing the need to look at social policy not in terms distribution but by way of analysing  the mode of production

*****

Il tutto andò in scena la prima volta il 20 febbraio 1877: senza successo.

We find these words in Fedele D’Amico’s comment L’Eleganza di un Sentimento, looking at Pëtr Il’ič Čajkovskij’s Il Lago dei Cigni. And there are so many ‘failures’. Sure, disappointments for many of those who had been involved. But isn’t especially Swan Lake a piece that shows in a unique form the emergence of excellence out of the collusion of individuality and collectivity? I suppose this is the actual excellence: collectivity in a true sense emerging from a respectful dealing with each other, accepting and valuing non-excellence of all as building block of the overall excellence. We see it throughout history – looking at what happened on the stage, yes, we know it latest from Shakespeare, hearing Jacques in As You Like speaking

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the canon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.[24]

– and it may cum grano salis also be true for humanity and the rise and fall of societies. And in some respect here in Italy, in particular in Rome, we are perfect in ‘staging’: the way people look, one is wondering …: declaring love; showing high rank; acknowledging authority, being welcoming and hospitable, being extremely submissive (well, this latter rarely occurs as a point in question). …

And importantly we have all the history at the tiptoe – kick a stone, and you kick 2,000 years.[25] A day after enjoying Pëtr Il’ič Čajkovskij’s Il Lago dei Cigni I move just around the corner, down the Via Appia – drive for perhaps 20 minutes from the city centre and face the little chapel: Santa Maria in Palmis

where the question had been posed

Domine quo vadis?

Well, quo vadis? Or better: Where do we go?

Do we move towards excellence? Or do we simply move towards the exaltation by exponential growth of comedy: commodities and the ultimate commodity that claims to represent generic value: money? The rapture of self-rape in consumerism? The new Divine Comedy – perhaps more like that reflected by Dalí in his illustrations.

Money is not really the question I guess. The question has to be concerned with the rules which are not ‘rules’ but commonalities emerging from the common action and activities and practice.

Catch 22 – actually I did not like the book (perhaps just because of the truth it brings merciless to the fore) – and I am sure that I definitely do not like this catch 22 as principle of life: We all want to be individuals and we can be so (and being individual has only meaning) if we follow the rules, beginning with language, passing state bureaucracy, walking across the exchange market of the economy and then standing in front of somebody: Ciao Bella (certo, anche: Ciao Bello or the Bravo, getting a bit annoying at this stage when hearing it where it should be Brava …) – just the melody of the words which do not mean anything which means they can mean everything, the look at you or the way you look, through the fashionable (designer?) glasses in your fashionable (designer?) clothes, leaning against the fashionable Vespa (which in Holland would be the Sparta-bike [not sure, this had been at least the brand of really fantastic bikes …] …., and you look at you and yours (colleagues, friends …), seeing that you are the only one[s] – not seeing that all these designer rules and designer things and designer relations (one of the recent inventions is governance and the inclusion of all stakeholders, being made responsible for the imposed rubbish we have to produce) are multiplied and mass products. And you have to strive for more individuality, exponentially growing, and making you forget the question. – Of course, having said this, I may have to add – just to avoid misunderstandings: the Italian bella and bello are not akin to the Latin bellum, there we talk about guerra; and it may be left to the reader to contemplate about possible new forms of guerra civile.

*****

Quo vaids? It had been already the wrong question. It should have been about the way that has to be carved in togetherness. And consequently the answer had been misleading. Let us briefly recall:

Saint Peter asked

Domine quo vadis

And the answer had been

Eo Romam iterum crucifix

The question should not have been about the lord going anywhere, but about where do WE go – collectively and aiming on maintaining gained collectivity. And the answer should not have been about standing against the rules and accepting crucification as punishment, but about dealing with the existing rules and developing from there true sovereignty … – true excellence of looking for ways to move further instead of confirming status.

– And of course, there is a paradox again: looking for the we, frequently requires to stand against the we: those who claim being divine individuals.

– And of course it is the attraction of exploring the underlying rules – with all the breaking of rules. (It may be that only the language of a country that is so much obsessed by rules as Germany can come up with the specific ‘beauty’ of the terminological monstrosity Regelverletzung – breaking of rules, not accepting that breaking the rule is part of the rule (well, surely Max Weber knew). Actually the real beauty is indeed the beauty of daily life, the magnificence of the ordinary, often hidden by being obsessed by the exotic which is not anything else like allowing us to see the beauty of the swans in their interplay – knowing too well where they go.

I think therefore I only recognise that I ceased to exist: to some extent discharged from the social, as far as the social discharged itself into the realm of the vicious circle of M-C-M’: the permanent resolution of self-reflexive dissolution in which excellence lost its ground.

As much as

[t]he worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself[26]

we move at least on and the modern (wo)man therefore only feels social outside of his/her relationships, and feels social when s/he is cocooned in private.

Somewhat ridiculous, isn’t it? Somewhat reminding of the Roman god of return. His name? Rediculus. May be a hint: the widely spread illusion that repetition of mistakes, hoping that by this wrongdoings, lies, misjudgements will turn to their opposite.

*****

One thing remains at the end:

Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes – Dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants

So we all have surely pay due respect – and the best way of doing so is being honest. And the opposite of this is to claim that our wider view is our own, possibly personal merit. And even worse is to overlook the haze of the height that requires special spectacles, not least those that allow accepting danger and failure. Otherwise seemingly small missteps of today may end up in getting in caught in glacial ice tomorrow.


[1]            John Maynard Keynes, passim

[2]            The mental escape is to think it as ‘part of my own existence’, which is objectified, thus allowing me to say ‘I personally would not do this or that; but I am bound to the rules that define my existence.’

[3]            Some may remember this – and perhaps it is even today still something and somewhere the case (left this business for a long time): if I remember correctly it had been the end of the 1970s/early 1980s when truck-drivers had been granted this status: king of the road. We got ‘our own truck’, not by way of property rights but as ‘personalised’ vehicles; we proudly have had a ‘name tag’ fixed to our ‘royal carriage’

[4]            Mind: classical economics frequently escapes reality by using mathematical formulas; this does not allow the argumentum e contrario. In other words, some formulas should be strictly taken as reformulation of reality.

[5]            in the following uv standing for use value and ev for exchange value

[6]           Marx, Karl, 1894: Capital, Volume III [German first edition 1894]; in: Karl Marx. Frederick Engels. Collected Works. Volume 37; London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1998: 804

[7]            ibid.

[8]            ibid.

[9]            From a personal communication with John Bellamy Foster in 2013

[10]            Of course, nobody is personally liableL

[11]            Boccara, 2002 Une sécurité d’emploi ou de formation. Pour une construction révolutionnaire de dépassement contre le chômage. Pantin : ESPERE et Le Temps Des CeRISES ; Septembre 2002: 24 f.

[12]            Moore, Suzanne, 28/08/2013: The death of the middle class will undermine our democracy; in: the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/28/death-middle-class-undermine-democracy

[13]            such as states, associations, business corporations, foundations (ibid.)

[14]            Weber, Max: (1921): Economy and Society. An Outline of Interpretive Sociology; Edited by Guether Roth and Claus Wittich; Berkley et altera: University of California Press; 1978; vol 1: 13

[15]            Schumpeter, Joseph, 1909: On the Concept of Social Value; in: The Quarterly Journal of Economics; Oxford University Press; Vol. 23, No. 2: 213-232; here: 225

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1882798 .

[16]            231 f.

[17]            Schumpeter suggests seemingly a variation of this, talking about ‘production, distribution and exchange’ and refers to their classification by ‘many writers’ as ‘social processes’, interestingly not mentioning consumption as Marx does (s. ibid.: 217).

[18]           ibid., 215

[19]            see for instance the differentiation of conditional, constitutional and normative factors and their interplay as suggested by the social quality theory.

[20]            van der Maesen, Laurent J.G./Walker, Alan, 2012: Social Quality and Sustainability; in: Van der Maesen, Laurent J.G./Walker, Alan (eds.): Social Quality. From Theory to Indicators: Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; 250-274; here: 260

[21]            Keynes, John Maynard, 1923: A Tract on Monetary Reform; London et altera: MacMillan, reprinted 1924: 80

[22]            see Marcuse, Herbert, 1966: Der Mensch in einer sozialisierten Welt. Aufnahme: 03.10.1966, BR Technik: Schmitt Laufzeit: 47:13; CD 2: track 1: 2.45 min; from: Der Mensch in einer sozialisierten Welt. Originalvorträge von Herbert Marcuse. Autor: Herbert Marcuse. Sprecher: Herbert Marcuse. Aus der Reihe: O-Ton-Wissenschaft. Thema: Soziologie, Wissenschaft. 4 CDs – ca. 200 Minuten: CD 2: track 1: 2.45 min

[23]            Marx, Karl, 1844: [Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844]; in: Karl Marx. Frederick Engels. Collected Works. Volume 3; London: Lawrence&Wishart, 1975: 229-346.: 274

[24]            Shakespeare: As You Like It, 2. 7. 139-167; http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/life/lifesubj+1.html

[25]            well, these are actually the words used by a Chinese friend, talking about China 😉 – sure, there is the urgent need to overcome Eurocentricsm

[26]            Marx, Karl, 1844: [Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844]; in: Karl Marx. Frederick Engels. Collected Works. Volume 3; London: Lawrence&Wishart, 1975: 229-346.: 274

Annunci

4 thoughts on “Excellence – The Mediocrity of Excellencies and Excellence of Mediocrity

  1. well, on this topic then: An (Irish) university daring to send an assessement form – to be used for a reference for a student. Options:
    N= Not able to observe; 1 = Unsatisfactory; 2 = Poor; 3 = Average; 4 = Very Good; 5 = Excellent
    So it means average is good, and everything that is better than that is already “very good”? The person who is responsible for this is just excellent – in being a fool

  2. well, on this topic then: An (Irish) university daring to send an assessement form – to be used for a reference for a student. Options:
    N= Not able to observe; 1 = Unsatisfactory; 2 = Poor; 3 = Average; 4 = Very Good; 5 = Excellent
    So it means average is good, and everything that is better than that is already “very good”. The person who is responsible for this is just excellent – in being a fool

  3. A reblogué ceci sur williamthompsonuccet a ajouté:

    the issue came up recently for me – again and again, and in the conversation with different people: Excellence … – too often not being anything else than megalomania — a dangerous deception that does not allow people to be …, just to be ordinary people and be great as such. That would allow us all as well to be aware of the responsibility we have instead of carelessly killing others …, allowing things to get out of control …
    The current version is slightly modified

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