The Tipping Point, Critical Mass & The Avant Garde

(Tipping Point:) "the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable." Gladwell defines a tipping point as a sociological term, "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point." The book seeks to explain and describe enormous and "mysterious" sociological changes that mark everyday life. As Gladwell states, "Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do." [wikipedia]

Physics can demonstrate this (with a tipping box), but cannot establish it as a universal without the preface "all things being equal". The frog in the water set to boil illustrates the problem with ideas of critical mass as sociological function. The more the temperature is raised (but of course, gradually), the less likely is the frog to tip the pot in jumping out. All things are never equal! The physicist's proclamation pertains to water, not frogs in the water. Physics, as an institution, tries to annihilate chance occurrence (it could tip one way or the other so we give it an initial push; we can predict at which point the frog will die – "its momentum toward stasis is unstoppable"), and this makes it inadequate for sociology, which pertains to the behavior of and between living organisms, not inert or constrained elements (ok, sociology as an institution does do this!). With catastrophe theory, mathematics may be more implicative for sociology than is physics, but it is even more restricted within pure hypothetical deduction. A lesson from Wittgenstein, there is always possible the confusion between what the calculus can do and what is.

Jumping (or not) frogs and boiling water are more like the way viral infection (as well as recouperation) spreads. It is slow and insidious, and that is its source of momentum. Momentum is more effect than cause, kind of like the after-effects of the eruption of Mount St. Helens for the fellow who refused to acknowledge it until his legs were not fast enough to take him to safe haven. Skepticism toward the volcano killed him. Skepticism toward his beliefs ("all is well") might have saved him. The point it went from one to the other was the tipping point. Very probably there was a singular moment of terror.

In Match Point, Woody Allen supplies us with a more suitable physics of sociology. If you haven't seen it, it is the metaphor of the tennis ball hitting the top of the net, bouncing straight up, and descending back down. When it hits the net, energy (momentum) spent, it can fall to either side. The outcome can never be predicted. It is also a moment of panic or terror, as it is a single point where history must change. During the thousand days of terror following the French eruption, many revolutionaries came to regret the "uprising of the proletariat" as the blade was falling toward their collective necks.

Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen, unfortunately, and despite their good intentions, are already infected with the virus of state. Viri do not take sides. They, not their distributors' intentions (good or ill), are the real agents of change. They haunt us. I think this is illustrated as renewal in Camus' The Plague: "It keeps coming back".

Isn't The Law of the Few a theory of the avant garde? I do appreciate the stickiness factor[1] and power of context[2], but only in their 'essential' semantic character. This theory of critical mass is a theory of maintaining the status quo as much as a theory of change. It also describes the distribution of state (status-maintaining) propaganda. Any forthcoming change cannot be radical (sweeping). This is the point I've tried to show before on the innecessity of conspiracies and think tanks (fat cats with cigars in smoke-filled rooms, anarchists in basements stacking crates of dynamite). They have their uses, but little overall agency for radical change. This does not dispute the idea that small groups can change history, only that that change may not be in the desired direction, and that that change might be, "in reality", no change at all. Small group or large, in this context, "agents of change" driving a critical (unstoppable) mass-momentum is only a modernization of marxist prophecy. I do not wish to naysay the prophecy, I only quarrel as to how it pertains to any sort of revolutionary (eruptive) change in social relations.

Another example: With the concept of A Shrinking World (in Six degrees of Separation) which is said to support The Tipping Point,

Karinthy believed that the modern world was 'shrinking' due to this ever-increasing connectedness of human beings. He posited that despite great physical distances between the globe's individuals, the growing density of human networks made the actual social distance far smaller,

Karinthy et al still confuse topological/technological distance/connection with the social. The connection is only machinic. This is why I cringe whenever I read the phrase, "the capitalist social relation". "Capitalist" and "social" are oxymorons when they come into contact. No wonder we are so drawn to dialectics! Even a crowded supermarket makes me want to scream! But then, I don't have an immunological receptivity for the mechanical metaphor. I find it useful in some contexts, but untrue as a first principle. I do think the theory of mass can point to an opportunity or potential for contamination to spread faster. Detournement casts doubt in the eye of the beholder. An overcrowded barn is always full of sick livestock, no matter how high-tech are your sanitation procedures. A detournement is a virus waiting for a host in a crowded classroom. This is why teachers and other public speakers (like any avant garde) do not tolerate interesting (challenging) questions posed from the gallery, even during the Q&A period following the lecture. Information must never stray far from the institution. Intuition is always punishable by expulsion.

Didn't the situationists wish to inhibit the virulence of one disease so their own could metastasize? If what we wish for is liberation (the negative, unbounding or destructive side), what we want is freedom (the positive, connective or creative side). That is not a project, a program or a "right path". It is certainly not a dialectic: "wish for" and "want-an-end-to" are not opposing factors in a mathematical equation but 'positive' and 'negative' poles of movement, an aesthetic turning away or toward. It is the establishment (metastasis) of possibility. There is a virus going around which tells us to go after our desires, do the impossible, but that is a deadly virus. It works indiscriminately on/for both "sides". Freedom is not a thing to be ordered, defined and classified. It is just the possibility of jumping out of the pot before it's too late; of being free from accusation of "loser" for falling on the wrong side of the net; of helping each other up from the tarmac or over the razor-wire fence.

It's so hard to think about this from the ontological position of hierarchy and its construction of rigid categories and attempts to find isomorphism and identity in metaphor. These are the true immunological soldiers of our culture, anti-bodies fighting for the health of the status quo. We can express metaphors, but we cannot control their spread or the content received, only enhance the possibility of that spread (virulence) by detourning the soldiers. We keep chipping away because what we're after is only possibility itself, not rubble. We may intend the spread of a single virus, but our metaphoric expressions contain many. We likely do not even know them! There is no way to predict or guarantee which virus is infective. The victim must be prepared for symbiosis if our aesthetic is to be received, and that is not our project. We also call this, in literary contexts, "subjective interpretation". This cannot be forced, "engineered" else subjective interpretation and poetry are equally annihilated. We are left only with spectacular deception. You can see that I'm also talking of meaning, and now we're back on the topic of communication, of language.


So here's the paradox for the avant garde which comes to mind: A small group cannot change "the people" and thereby distribute freedom, the freedom to create new conditions. A small group cannot change conditions which "the people" had the upper hand in creating, thereby giving them freedom to change themselves. Both have been tried repeatedly with no amount of success (except in maintaining the status quo – "same shit, different day", says Steven King). There is something to be said for the laws of probability and inductive method.

So this is what we already have because "the people" thought it wise (or expedient) at the time that they entered into, by hook or by crook, slavery-and-beggary, brown-nosed-prostitution, "the-capitalist-social-relation". For freedom's sake, the avant garde for change must either aquire permissions or exercise authority. So much for the sake of freedom. The six people next to all of us are not an avant garde, they are nodes in a network more accessible to its power points. But it is not power which needs persuading. These six will be best put to use with sticks of dynamite. It is the other six billion of us who need to change our minds (or get some)! An avalanche of numbskulls only produces an avalanche of numbskulls, no matter the momentum accumulated. This law also applies to intellectuals.

Wishing to erase the dictionary's entire section on Avant Garde and replace it with our own, a small group can in actuality (that is, until memory-wipes are as freely available as butt-wipes) only perform little acts of sabotage on a machine which has been running on autopilot for hundreds (I say thousands) of years. The paradox is solved (like the chicken and egg) when we stop distinguishing (separating) the people and their conditions, the conditions and their ideologies, creation and destruction. By the same token, we might wish to question some of the identities we have already established, such as more and enough, utilitarianism and aesthetic. With this perspective, a poem read is an act of sabotage. One might say all poetry is destructive or it is superficial, uninteresting and devoid of meaning:

Ode to an H-bomb:
Roses are red. Violets are blue. I've got a hammer. What have you? [ – A. Runnion Pollison].

Destruction and construction suddenly merge (and this is not A. Runnion's intent, which was simply to demonstrate a meaningless or superficial limeric). My subjective interpretation from the point of view of "reader" is constructed from the juxtaposition of the title with the poem, form with content, damage done to my own system and its self-managed reconstitution. Interpretation is not a linear process: the poet wrote the limeric, the reader added the title. The journalist and historian have only reported a series of events. We, on the other hand, are now in agreement as to the meaning, we are mutually infected by an act of sabotage, a detournement which produced a time-independent "ah ha!". To broadcast this interpretation to others (as an "author", a position of authority), we anihilate all other possible interpretations, one of which might have gone on to change the world with a suitably well-lobbed tennis ball. Oh, well, there are other poems to write.

For the machine as well as the "mind", sabotage is an expression, in the literal sense. There is a certain poetry behind dynamite, and we would hope there is some dynamite behind our poetry. I should think a free act must arise from passion and aesthetic. It is hoped our expressions are contagious, but that would only be a perk, not our prime motivation. Aesthetic is not contained by utilitarianism. Why should any of our behavior be, as long as there is food on the table and guests to share it with?

We might be surprised at how much momentum might accumulate if we're not always caught up trying to give our boxes an initial push (our boxes can be very heavy), if we're not so steadfastly (or is that "stuck in the mud"?) trying to sell our wares. We need to be more sneaky, that is, slow and insidious in our attack, quick thinking and lightfooted in our retreat: A good snort of metaphor, sneak up to your opponent, unexpectedly sneeze, run like hell, hope they get sick. It is the same plan whether reciting poetry or lobbing dynamite.

Sympathy for the bandits extirpated by The Seven

Frere Dupont

Peasants are condemned to not foresee that the death of the bandits who persecute them also means the death of their village.

Calvera: What if you had to carry my load, huh? The need to provide food, like a father, to fill the mouths of his hungry men. Guns. Ammunition. You know how much money that costs? Huh? Huh?! No. The days of good hunting are over. Once there was horses, cattle, gold, fruit from the trees. No more. Now l must hunt with a price on my head, rurales at my heels... l´ll be back... Enough! We´ll get the rest when we come back... l love this village.

– We need help. We must buy guns. We know nothing about them. Will you buy guns for us?
– Guns are very expensive and hard to get. Why don´t you hire men?
– Men?
– Gunmen. Nowadays men are cheaper than guns.

The avant garde engages in skirmishes that concern nobody but those directly involved, that change the lives of nobody but those directly involved, that overthrow conventions of behaviour for nobody but those directly involved.

The avant garde is located more or less above faultlines in society which it more or less accurately articulates. However, the avant gardes have never resolved the contradictions which they express.

Yes, it is true that the avant garde records in its behaviour something of contemporary social relations but it does not follow that this unfettered articulation of contemporenity is comensurate with a willed incarnation of revolutionary agency.

The avant garde records situations it does not change them. The dynamics of the avant garde is expressed, more or less, in the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai.

Seven listless individuals involve themselves in some or other ongoing social issue which is not their issue in the manner they imagine it to be. They function as the avenging angel, the one from the outside. They appear at certain critical junctures within an established relation because the relation at that juncture is in crisis.

The outcome of The Seven’s engagement is always proportionately: four dead; one gone native; and two surviving. The remaining two ride off to involve themselves in sequels remarkable only for their diminishing returns – the dull echoes of what had previously seemed unprecendented.

The lives of the peasants are not transformed by the appearance of The Seven; their training in new skills proves irrelevant to the demands of life. And correspondingly, the consciousness of sections of The Seven falter; Charles Bronson says, ‘It is the peasants and not us that are significant here. We must record not intervene; we must learn, not instruct.’

The momentarily disrupted pattern of life drifts back to how it was before. The habits of the peasants go on unchanged because the conditions of their life have not changed. That is to say, their lives are changed irreparably but by the forces which gave permission for The Seven to appear in the village, and not by the actions of The Seven themselves.

From the peasants’ perspective there has been an extraordinary event but there has been no extraordinary transformation.

However, in contradistinction, the avant garde is always changed by its involvements. It is in the nature of the avant garde to record the transformations it attempts to realise in the lives of others upon its own flesh.

The avant gardes transform themselves via their aspirations for involvement in wider social struggles. However, it is written into their being that they are capable of authentically achieving such transformations only where they have convinced themselves that they are able to intervene and make a difference in wider social circumstances. For the Seven, the deliverance of the peasants from banditry was a preconditon for their own redemption but their redemption could not, must not, appear as the objective of their intervention.

Thus the accession to the role of sorcerer’s apprentice: a tactical immersion in ‘earlier’ stages of credulity; the embodiment of a hitherto sidelined mode of political agency; a shamanic guise adopted so as to instigate a rising spiral of political effects by means of imagined-as-real access to fundamental life-forces.

In order to explain itself, the avant gardes must fold back on itself the assertion:

All gods, the pagan as well as the Christian ones, have possessed a real existence. Did not the ancient Moloch reign? Was not the Delphic Apollo a real power in the life of the Greeks?

The avant garde must act as if its formations were not merely real but that such formations constitute a real power beyond the formations.  And yet, if they are to avoid representing themselves as a small group of individuals attempting to conjure unprecedented experience but instead wish to be taken for a formation of real social power, then their acceptance of this condition of supernaturality must also be included critically within the dimensions of their activities. In other words, the ‘earlier stage of credulity’ deployed so as to frame subjective interventions must be concieved through an advanced and knowing stage of critique which denies the likely effectiveness of such interventions.



1: "the specific content of a message that makes it memorable and have impact. The children's television programs Sesame Street and Blue's Clues are specific instances of enhancing stickiness and systematically engineering stickiness into a message."

2: "Human behavior is sensitive to and strongly influenced by its environment. As Gladwell says, "Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur." For example, "zero tolerance" efforts to combat minor crimes such as fare-beating and vandalism on the New York subway led to a decline in more violent crimes city-wide." .