Institutional Recursion

I saw a tweet earlier today from an acquaintance of mine who also makes YouTube videos. Not to name any names or throw anyone “under the bus” so to speak, but the tweet was more or less telling of an issue I’ve noticed on YouTube for a while now. Even these sentences are illustrative of the idea and, as such, I don’t want to confine this discussion to YouTube but, rather, expand the discussion to institutions as a whole. So what was this tweet anyway? It was much like any other, a few screenshots of some YouTube videos discussing critiques of the YouTuber who himself posted the tweet, him saying that he’d be responding to these video criticisms. Now the man who made the tweet was himself someone who critiqued other things in his videos, other people even. So what this amounted to in my head was a critiquer (the original man in question) responding to criticisms (ie. critiquing the criticisms) of himself about how he criticizes other things and critiquers. And as that went over in my head I thought, “who cares?”

It is precisely that question that I would like to answer right now. To do so, I’d like to establish a flow of events in the affair. There was first some event or action that the initial YouTuber felt was worth of criticism. Second, there was the criticism itself. Third, criticism of the criticism. Fourth, the tweet – criticism of the criticism of the criticism. The third event in this chain begins the recursion, that is, the self-referential process whereby an action onto some “other” is acted onto itself. It can happen for two reasons, I think. The first is how the subject (a person) defines “other.” The original YouTuber, for the most part, defined other as some thing outside of himself, some worthy thing that deserved his qualification, whether it was positive or negative. He took it on himself to speak his mind and as a result, create a product (the video) which synthesized this other with himself and his Ideas. This video has characteristics which are twofold: it is for-other (referential) and for-itself. The referentiality of it is insofar as it makes reference to some other: an event, an action, a characteristic of some thing worthy of having Ideas applied to it. The “for-itself”-ness of the video is in its indication of the YouTuber as himself. That is, inasmuch as it can be said that the video is some “other” to another subject (person). There is a transformative process here wherein the for-itself-ness of the video becomes not an indication of the person himself, but rather of opinions divorced from the person. As the person is divorced from his whole being, his mind, his feelings, that which constitutes him, his Ideas in the video become a thing of “other”ness to other subjects. Hence, the subjective Ideas in the video which constitute it being a thing for-itself become “other” things which the process of criticism can be applied onto.

So, who cares? Well, those people who believe that a person’s mind can be reduced to an “other” and in turn have criticism applied onto it. It is this which creates the recursive aspect of “institutional recursion” – the process of knowing and critiquing is applied onto itself in a perceived “other.” The “institutional” aspect lies a bit distanced from the recursive aspect, though in a sense is bound to it. Almost all members of institutions eventually experience some kind of recursion. Hell, even a small friend group experiences this. It’s what we’d generally just call gossip – the saying of some other subject some critique or some thing which we find distasteful or intriguing, interpreting them not as a person, a subject, like ourselves, but as some “other”, an object to say things of. The question that follows from this, is, well, “why?” What is the reason for this transformative, reductive process whereby a whole person can be discussed as though his self were unimportant?

The best answer I can give is thus – ego competition. The ego is that thing that directs us towards selfishness. Though really I think the ego’s selfishness is a bit more subtle than what we’d typically call selfishness. Admit it, when we think of the selfish man, we think of the miser, the grumpy old man who wants things his way and wont budge, or the fat kid who won’t share any of his cookies. That’s selfishness of the id, I think – brute, brash, uncompromising. No, the ego’s selfishness is not so extreme. Ego selfishness is that little feeling you get when things don’t feel quite right; not in a spooky kind of way, but in a “I don’t quite think things should be this way,” kind of way. Indeed, all of ego selfishness, and selfishness in general, is contingent on “should.” But whereas the id selfishness clearly and rigidly is aware of what should be, going so far as to make it well-known for its own sake, ego selfishness does not necessarily want what is best for itself. It merely wants what is best. Why? Evolution, I suppose. I don’t really know. All I do know is that its a feeling I get a lot, a feeling I’m sure a lot of people get about a lot of things: this water is too warm, my phone is too old, she speaks too softly, his hair isn’t combed well. All of these categorical claims amount to not “should” but “is” statements – x is y. But added here is a “too” – x is too y – and to assert such is to assert, implicitly, that x should not be too y, perhaps x should be some other y. Notice that the second two examples seem just as valid as the first two – the human being, he or she, is another x that can be too y. We really don’t have a problem with saying such a thing, because, at least grammatically, a person fulfills the same logical place as any other “other”.

Is this why people are quick to treat others as “other”? Probably not. It is merely a linguistic emblem of the fact we do such a thing. Why we do this, perhaps, has an answer again in evolution – improvement of affairs, whether in other people or in objects, something we’ve needed to participate in as animals from the beginning of time. Institutions are an aim to overcome it, create consensus, and end selfish bickering over minor affairs, so we may rise to greater pursuits. And yet, the recursion of ego selfishness remains, and men proceed to attack the members of those institutions, and the process repeats itself, recurring yet again.