- Hyperbolic fantasist real-estate developer becomes spectacle-based political power broker (stop me if you’ve heard this one before)
- A small pantheon of schemers vs the tolkienic hero
Filip St Martin and Power in Fantasy
Bruce Sterling and his parter work in an old palace in Turin called the “Vineyard of the Royal Madame”. Their residence is part of a cultural renewal project called Phoenix Renewed.
The palace was constructed in the 17th century for the Duchess of Savoy by her lover, Filippo San Martino of Agliè [Italian wiki, City of Turin tomb site] (I went with ‘Filip St Martin’ as I couldn’t find a proper anglicization. Perhaps I shouldn’t need one).
What baffles me about these Turinese baroque utopians is their fantasy world… How much they conceal, deny, lie in every document. We like to think that the judgement of history is a court that brings justice, that separates truth from falsity. I no longer believe that after this research. These people are machiavellian court intriguers. They lie to everyone, including one another. They don’t tell people the truth because they don’t value truth. They value grandeur, splendor, power, wealth, and also technical learning, but they’re pre-scientific. They’re not rationalists. They’re geometric but not scientific. They don’t verify reality, they don’t test theories. That hasn’t been invented yet. To the contrary, they’re fantasists.Bruce Sterling @ The Long Now, 02018
Filip St Martin is the present prime minister of the country because he’s a PR expert who specializes in glamorous spectacle. He organizes gorgeous public events that are the ancestors of today’s ballet & opera. […]The great media events of the day- fireworks shows, baroque costumes […]. Filip St Martin is a courtier, power broker, urban planer, massive builder, but it’s spectacle through which he justifies and legitimates his regime. He’s in power because he makes stuff up, not because he builds things.Bruce Sterling @ The Long Now, 02018
He justifies everything with fantasy- they’re not particularly good looking people [fellow courtiers], [but] he dresses them up as Gods, mythical creatures […]. He controls the entire budget for state construction, the country’s top real estate contractor- he never makes a factual statement. He never declares a manifesto, it’s all spectacle, pretense.Bruce Sterling @ The Long Now, 02018
I’ve demonstrated some interest in the social power of spectacle [e.g. on Aztec political thought, my synthesis here]. I would also tie Filip St. Martin to other figures explored in this blog before: the antics and tactics of Robert Moses, the noted inscrutability of Francisco Franco, Cosimo de’ Medici’s alleged “multivocality“. For all of them, a strong grasp of both the ruleset they played with and a set of ever-evolving stories of justification presents a model of ‘leadership’ that is at odds with the Decisive Leader who reacts or deliberates and comes to singular and wise decisions.
Notably, all of these figures (St. Martin, Medici, Franco, Moses) are thought of as amoral at the very best. Rather than this being a result of their leadership styles, I think it’s plausible that our negative affect towards them is why they haven’t been retroactively fashioned as inspiring Tolkienic/Christian heroes who carry the burden of leadership and fight to resist the corruption of power etc etc. Instead, they are (again, at best) complicated figures who won the games they played on their apparent merits, often through grinding procedural games on one hand and extreme narrative opportunism on the other. (I am not here to reclaim them as models of morality or anything other than the royal schemers or bureaucratic eminence grise that they appear to be.)
The “procedural games + narrative opportunism” frame is a common pattern I’ve chewed on at this blog. This the structure to Kissinger’s definition of a Political Order– an external balance of power on one hand and an internal authorizing legitimacy on the other. There is an objective aspect (the power calculation between entities) and an intersubjective aspect (the stories, beyond brute force calculations, that justify deference to the power structure) to successful institutions. This structure also mimics the synthesis in game studies, that settles the overwrought narratology vs ludology debate of the 1990s: “Yes, games are both sets of rules and a series of fictions.” Finally, in Venkat’s old work on the four decision patterns– [crumbs on it in my sketches here and here] this roughly maps to the highly visible reactive + deliberative decision patterns on one hand and the sublimated procedural (automatic/cultural/habitual) + opportunistic (“multivocal”) decision patterns on the other hand.
I think that we tend to tell stories with only two decision patterns: deliberative and reactive. They are very mechanical, and both involve a single, clear model of directed action. Stories are linear and simple, this-then-that-then-that. Each action, in this Newtonian model, causes a simple result in the next step, which might be the cause of a new event.
The other two decision patterns are more complicated to deal with narratively:
Opportunism involves holding more than one model at a time in your head, and switching tracks. There may not be a discrete moment of realization. Retroactively, opportunism can be written as a grand plan (deliberative) or as an incidental/immediate event (reactive), but this writes out the serendipity and recognition that the decision pattern actually entails. Multivocality is an Opportunist strategy.
Proceduralism is also difficult to talk about, because unlike action-reaction there is often a difference of scale involved that makes it easy to omit: (a ritual inherited from my culture un-examined; a procedure instilled by an organization automatically; a habit humming along beneath my awareness). There isn’t usually much attention paid to the procedural layer in our storytelling, although it contains the most information/behavior. As Venkat notes in the above link, breaking into the opponent’s OODA loop usually involves hacking their procedural-level decision lair, where their attention is usually missing.
“Robust Action”, it seems to me, makes the most sense framed by the Opportunist and Procedural decision patterns. To someone with a simple direct-action-oriented view of only deliberative/reactive decision patterns, the Opportunist/Procedure-hacker will seem illegible, perhaps like a divinely lucky or otherwise off-script person.Quoting myself – Section 4 of some scattered notes here, commenting on my own post from 2013 synthesizing Venkat’s work with other ideas at the time.
And so we have Cosimo and Franco who are apparently unable to commit to the idea that the sky is blue, who appear to ‘look into’ everything and decide virtually nothing, keeping the different nodes in their heterogenous networks at some ideal social distance. We have Robert Moses who wraps himself up in the cloak of disinterested authority when useful, and otherwise sometimes picking enemies that grant him public opinion as a cudgel against the technical rule of law, and otherwise changing play styles when the Mayor above him has a vital election coming up, and convoluting long-running permitting cases against him by simply outrunning them by building aggressively and out-spending them by unlocking government funds for his defense. And now here we have Filip St Martin, the fantasist and brand identity genius, the state-scale level event planner and “real estate developer”.