Buridan’s ass would doubtless have hated the internet. The same old blues, he’d think, multiplied infinitely. Or perhaps, and this is the bet every Internet marketer and Google stockholder makes, he would have loved it, as craving becomes an addiction to choice. We begin by looking for the cheapest price, and we end by spending hours looking at Airbnb pictures and commenting on how they could possibly thought that photographing a corner of the bathroom was of any interest to the curious renter.
This is, at least, my experience. I become more asslike as I realize that possible worlds are unfolding before me in cosmic vistas, that one of my childhood dreams – invisibly entering a house – is being realized on a frightening scale, and I have merely to put the cursor on another link to send another shot to whatever part of my brain that is dedicated to invidious comparisons. However, there’s a point, a sad point, in which the whole expedition upon which I have embarked – to find, say, a cheap Airbnb in X – begins to lose its purpose, in which the best price, or the best looking rental, or the best location, or the best references, loses its practical side, because nothing, it turns out, is exactly, every jot and tittle, what I want, even if, before I began the expedition, my desires were of a vagueness… It becomes, instead, an indicator of more – of the “there must be more” that so often besets the poor commoditized consumer, in fatal foreplay with his own want-y self.
John Buridan, like any medieval worth his tomes, left behind a considerable amount of text. However, there is no textual anchor in that corpus for the ass story, although there are plenty other paradoxes. The story goes like this: an ass is driven to stand between two exactly similar bales of hay. If we suppose that the ass simply acts on a calculation that serves to maximize his desire, he would find no reason to prefer one to the other. Thus, he would continually stand there, calculating, until he starved to death.
Buridan apparently used this parable orally, when teaching his students, and it was passed down after he died so that it was known to Spinoza, who is one of the first to mention the story.
Crucially, the ass is between two parity products. Two bales of hay that are composed of just the kind of saliva inducing stuff that donkey’s crave. The donkey has found a strange spot in the human universe, an equilibrium spot, where there is no more reason to chose bale “a” then to chose “b”. Being a mule calculator, an asinus economicus, the mule has obviously read up on ranked preferences and is way ahead of Kenneth Arrow on the impossibility of the three candidate rank ordering, at least if we are to satisfy certain classical criteria, such as Pareto optimality.
Buridan’s ass has spawned, as such things do, a whole subliterature in philosophy. Many return to Spinoza’s analysis in Ethics II, 49:
“I am quite ready to admit, that a man placed in the equilibrium described (namely, as perceiving nothing but hunger and thirst, a certain food and a certain drink, each equally distant from him) would die of hunger and thirst. If I am asked, whether such an one should not rather be considered an ass than a man; I answer, that I do not know, neither do I know how a man should be considered, who hangs himself, or how we should consider children, fools, madmen, etc.”
Spinoza’s suggestion that the equilibrium state is kin to such extra-rational states as childhood or madness could be seen as a throwing up of his hands – a narrowing of the anthropological interest, of the human all too human. But I take it as something other than a philosophical defeat; to me, this signals a moment in the history of philosophy: a transformation of what used to the whole goal and morality of the sage’s exercise in refusing to want, in ascesis.
Spinoza and the tradition after him has tended to treat Buridan’s paradox as a problem to be solved, rather than a counterfactual about the natural history of reason. In fact, no ass has starved to death in front of two exactly similar hay bales. No human being has died of thirt confronted with two bottles of coke. There are no corpses at the equilibrium point. So the question, to my mind, should be about the reasons that reason does not lock up here. The lack of corpses at the equilibrium point suggests that calculative reason has a broader sense of its place in the world than we, who want to have division of cognitive labor first, recognize as philosophers. It is a point Vico later makes against what he calls the geometrical method in philosophy, which ignores natural history and the fact that understanding and conceptual analysis are, in fact, accompanied by the imagination, which is not controlled by, but rather precedes, calculation.
So much for the philosophical point. The broader point, here, is cultural: The older image of the sage, whose wisdom – a practical wisdom, since it was a method that applied to the way the sage lived – was about doing with less, diminishing the harsh claims of desire. This image of ascesis emerged in a world where the Malthusian constraints were harsh and inelastic. This was a world that was overwhelmingly agricultural, where the peasant was the vastly greater portion of the population. Spinoza’s text is an prefigures the lifting of those limits – the end, in the broad sense, of the ancien regime.
With the lifting of those limits (which we call modernization, even though the population of Europe and the U.S. was, until the beginning of the 20th century, still largely taken up with agriculture), with the era of the mass production of goods, the terms of choice changed. Never again such hay-bale innocence! In the new superstores, in Sears or in Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, the question of choice was radically, quantitatively changed – and with that change came an inalterable shift in the meaning and construction of the equilibrium point. The new Buridan question was about calculating over seemingly endless goods, such as had never been considered by ass nor human. These choices seemed, to the economist of the twentieth century, to signal a great change in the class-defined social structure – from Capital versus Labor we move smoothly to consumers, one and all. Of course, we who are on the ground floor, out there in the Dollar Store, know better. We can see the 75,000 dollar sports car in all its glory on TV, but we buy the used Honda. More than that – to fill our idle hours, we are flooded with oceans of tat, and with a deluge of images that makes attention itself a resource.
Which gets us to the internet, where all purchases seem, at a click, possible, and where the old foraging habit dies a squalid death in front of the omnipresent screen. It is in these new terms that the old equilibrium point has been transformed into something like a trance point. This is not just a matter of the internet – there’s an old phrase from the fifties, highway hypnosis (now known as Driving without Attention Mode, or DWAM), in which a certain automatism creeps over the subject as the subject racks up miles on a highway that has been designed to maximize uniformity. Oddly enough, the same result comes about from maximized non-uniformity – from the variety to which every internet site, every ad, strives. For there lurks, behind them, the same parity products, the same routine. And so the internet voyager of the cable tv mook becomes, at some point, immured in an equilibrium point that is as powerful as that mythically affecting Buridan’s ass. And so it is that the Walmart forager, the Amazon shopper, the Fandango moviegoer, the Youtuber, man and ass, feel, as they go through the routine, vaguely life-drained, exhausted from choices and yet somehow unable to resist looking for the next choice. On and on it goes, years and years it goes on. We have to stop, but we can’t stop.