When Alan Turing published his groundbreaking paper, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem”, on the computable numbers, he revolutionized the field of computation by proving that there were numbers that were not “computable by finite means”. Specifically, this meant that particular numbers could not be calculated without infinite time and/or resources. The existence of such numbers implied that there were also problems that could not be solved with finite means, because any problem that produced such a number as its answer would take infinite time and/or memory to compute. This led to a simple, but mathematically Earth-shattering proof of the non-computability of what is known in Computer Science as the Halting Problem. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of the Halting Problem, and Turing’s statements about it:
The halting problem is the problem of determining, from a description of an arbitrary computer program and an input, whether the program will finish running or continue to run forever.
Alan Turing proved in 1936 that a general algorithm to solve the halting problem for all possible program-input pairs cannot exist. A key part of the proof was a mathematical definition of a computer and program, which became known as a Turing Machine; the halting problem is undecidable over Turing machines.
This is a relatively simple statement. Turing basically proved that there is no general problem-solving method by which a computer, defined as a Turing Machine, could tell whether a program will ever finish its execution or not. But this simple statement took Turing almost 40 pages to prove. This was because in order to even make this statement, and be understood, he had to define dozens of terms, including “Turing Machine,” “program,” “computable,” and “algorithm,” all of which are foundational to all computer science that came after Turing.
The point is that the first step to having any sort of critical discussion is to agree on rigorous definitions of crucial terms. Without that step, communication and analysis break down, and consensus and critique become all but impossible. This is true of all critical discourse, whether in Computer Science, artistic critique, or political analysis. In that spirit, I continue here by positing some definitions for crucial terms that recur in my pieces. If you want to suggest my definitions are inaccurate, incomplete, or imprecise, please tell me I am full of shit (that’s a technical term) by commenting on this page.
In its broadest sense, politics is the process by which the tensions inherent to social relationships of power resolve to create change in the physical world. This definition emphasizes the fact that politics is an ongoing social process, which implies that, because it is social, it pervades human society. Wherever there are social interactions – which is to say, wherever two or more people have any sort of interaction – there is politics. Therefore, everything is political, to some degree. This broad category can be usefully delineated into several sub-categories:
- Formal politics is politics that is performed by actors that are socially recognized as agents of power, sometimes in formal venues. In less rigorous words, formal politics is simply politics that is recognized as politics. The definition also emphasizes that this kind of politics is, in part, a presentation to the broader public. This kind of politics is specifically concerned with creating and executing policy.
- Identity politics is politics that is concerned with defining what categories of people, delineated by socially determined identity markers, have power, and what kinds of power they have. What is important to recognize here is that identity politics sets boundaries on the participation of different social groups in general politics. In this way, identity politics can be understood as a form of meta-politics. Some relevant “socially determined identity markers” are class, race, gender, sexuality, and disability/mental illness.
- Geopolitics is politics that is concerned with the power of institutions relative to each other. The last four words of the definition are crucial for the definition. Notably, most people may associate “geopolitics” with politics between nation-states, but this definition allows for competition between institutions that exist wholly in the same national boundaries. I allow this because of the increasingly obvious role of NGOs, corporations, and political parties in politics that crosses national boundaries, and because national boundaries are largely arbitrary distinctions (but that is a separate argument). For this reason, geopolitics and formal politics overlap heavily.
- Electoral politics is politics that is concerned with determining who the designated actors and spaces of formal politics will be. Notably, I do not mention elections. Elections are one method by which the selection of formal political actors can take place, but there are other methods, like back-room dealings, legislative nomination/confirmation, coups, etc. Obviously, not all of these options are equally ethical or palatable.
- Movement politics is politics that is concerned with changing culture. Less precisely, movement politics is politics that aims to alter public opinion on certain issues, so as to generate or undermine support for particular policies. Movement politics is what determines the boundaries in which formal political actors (alternatively labeled “insiders”) do their jobs.
A culture is a set of social incentives and the set of social artifacts that reinforce and reproduce those incentives. It is important to stress the article, “a” before the term itself, because “Culture” is not an autonomous force. It is a social system, determined through a dynamic process of negotiation, which determines what actions will be socially punished and which will be rewarded. Individuals can act in ways that contradict the broader culture, but their actions will be punished by the culture.
Violence is the attempt to exert power over someone else’s body without their consent. This includes physical violence, but it is important to stress that physical violence is a strict subset of violence overall. It also includes, but is not necessarily limited to, sexual violence, emotional violence, and systemic violence, and the “power” being exerted can be the literal control of physical motion, or it can be the control of thought, emotion, or social interaction. It is also important to note that because violence is, by this definition, always an attempt to exert power over somebody else, then all violence is inherently political.
- Physical violence is violence that employs physical force. This is the simplest form of violence, and the most obvious, and depending on how it is used, it often serves as a component of other forms of violence.
- Sexual violence is violence that seeks to control the victim’s, or victims’, sexuality. It is important to note that controlling sexuality does not strictly require the victim to be coerced into sex by any means, physical or otherwise. Any attempt to exercise control, in any way, over how somebody else has sex, or whom they have it with, is sexual violence. Therefore, rape, in all its forms, is a strict subset of sexual violence.
- Emotional violence is violence that seeks to alter or control a person’s emotional state. This can be attempted through the use of physical or sexual violence, or it can be done entirely through social or psychological means, like gaslighting or deliberate social exclusion.
- Systemic violence is violence that is embedded in a system. This violence can be physical, sexual, or emotional, or some combination of the three. The word embedded implies that systemic violence is a part of the structure of the system itself, and cannot be removed without reform or wholesale replacement of the system in context.