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On the fabrication of alethic necessity in systems of ideology.

  • Jul 09 2021
  • Patricia Reed
    is an artist, writer, and designer living in Berlin.

From the essay The Valuation of Necessity, commissioned for the forthcoming Blockchains & Cultural Padlocks Digital Strategy Research Report (Spring 2021). Courtesy, 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.”[1] – 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6] 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.[7] 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,[8] 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.[9]

    [1] Yuk Hui, Recursivity and Contingency, (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 100.
    [2] Cecile Malaspina, An Epistemology of Noise, (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 53.
    [3] Boris Kment, "Varieties of Mdality", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta
    [4] As Reza Negarestani notes, stability does not equate with invariance or fixity. See “Where is the Concept: Localization, Ramification, Navigation,” in When Site Lost the Plot, ed. R. Mackay, (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2015).
    [5] Donald C. Lee, “The Concept of “Necessity”: Marx and Marcuse,” in The Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, 6, no. 1, (Winter 1975): 47–53.
    [6] Conrad Hamilton, “The Discrete Ideology of Thomas Piketty: Successes and Failures of ‘Capital and Ideology’,” in Merion West, 2 July, 2020.
    [7] Donald C. Lee, “The Concept of “Necessity”: Marx and Marcuse.
    [8] Ibid.
    [9] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?,” (London: Zero Books, 2009).



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