THE VALUATION OF NECESSITY
On the fabrication of alethic necessity in systems of ideology.
From the essay The Valuation of Necessity, commissioned for the forthcoming Blockchains & Cultural Padlocks Digital Strategy Research Report (Spring 2021). Courtesy 221a.ca, Vancouver/Unceded Territories
“The real necessity is only a relative necessity […] It is relative because if we ask why A is necessary, it is because B and C are its conditions.” – Yuk Hui
“Necessity” has a long history in philosophy. In the most abbreviated sense, necessity designates that which cannot be otherwise. Correspondingly, anything that is not necessary, is contingent, meaning it can be, or may be otherwise. Necessity is axiomatic, insofar as what is necessary remains so regardless of situational specificity, and furthermore it is resistant to contradiction, logically speaking. Necessity, writ large, operates as a conceptual and/or material constraint, since it determines what is not freely negotiable, nor subject to alterability. Of course, in our everyday life, we usually do not use it in quite the same, definitive way. There are, in practice, kinds of necessity that offer more nuance and contextuality when wielding the term conceptually, and putting it to use heuristically. For example, alethic kinds of necessity typically pertain to metaphysics, epistemology, or natural laws where the existence of the property “X”, always entails the proposition of “X” is true. An alethic necessity from within biology, for instance, would be to claim that the maintenance of human life necessarily requires hydration and nourishment; this claim is true regardless of context, since the absence of hydration and nourishment yields the falsity of the proposition “human life”. Non-alethic necessities, in contrast, are where the existence of the property of “Y”, does not always entail the proposition of “Y” is true. For instance, in the domain of law, where it may be necessary to wear a seatbelt while in a moving car, but that necessity does not entail that all car-riding people wear seatbelts as a universal truth, in every situation. Alethic necessities are absolute, whereas non-alethic necessities are context sensitive, which is another way to say they are typically fabricated, not discovered.
While the above definitions may appear a mere scholastic exercise, these distinctions are entirely relevant for the messier domain of social and political life. Since no social or political configuration is determined absolutely by either natural or supernatural (God determining) law, any social or political claims on necessity (i.e., that one is required to behave, operate, or relate to oneself a certain way) are of the non-alethic kind. Social orders can then be seen as operations of power to stabilize certain non-alethic necessities, and this is often done by elevating said necessities into an ideologically alethic status—a process we can identify as the naturalization of necessity. Such a tendency, has long been observed by Marx, who noted that the holy-trinity of production (capital, land, and labor) alongside its corresponding forms of income (interest, rent, and wages) is perpetuated by the dominant classes who justify their wealth based on the “natural necessity” of such a political-economic model. These particular categories of production and wealth accumulation are only necessary relative to a non-absolute (non-alethic) historically contingent, organization of production/distribution. While recognizing that the artificiality of naturalized necessity offers a point of leverage from which to challenge dominant social-ordering models, there is obviously much more at stake than simply announcing a given order as not alethically necessary. All social orders are of the non-alethic genre of necessity. What is important, rather, to recognize, as Conrad Hamilton has written is the “…what we define as unalterable is the consequence of a social rationality that manifests across the spectrum of reality.” The starting point is learning how to witness non-alethic necessities as contingent and subject to reconfiguration, demanding more than the critical agency to observe and diagnose, but also the capacity to testify as to what transformative, realizable possibility could be. The operations of naturalized necessity may be based on fictional ideals, but their consequences are very material, playing out in both formal and informal registers. The formalization of naturalized necessity are exemplified by legal doctrines which uphold and enforce compliance to a given, status-quo socio-economic order. Yet, arguably the informal operations of naturalized necessity are the most pervasive not only playing out in interpersonal relationships conditioned by economic and social power, but also within ourselves, as we are coerced into modes of self-appraisal adapted to these non-alethic necessities with corresponding rewards or punishments, whether self-inflicting or otherwise. Mark Fisher’s now infamous “capitalist realism” diagnosis captures the potency of such informal constraints in conscious and unconscious ways, where behaviours, and even modes of creativity (with few exceptions) rehearse this naturalized necessity as if it was an immutable condition with no alternative.