The Exercise of Authoritah

I have this comic fantasy of some day being in a business situation where a client comes to me with a tricky problem. I ponder impassively for a moment. Then I pick up the phone and make one cryptic phone call. I then look at the client and say, “Go home, it will be taken care of.” This Godfather fantasy of being able to deliver on firm promises with a single phone call cracks me up because it so absurdly out of whack with the way I actually operate. Phone calls like this can only happen in the context of an asymmetric mode of relationship management I call collecting. In real life, I am more likely to be on the receiving end of such a call. 

Unlike normal adult patterns of relating, which I’ll call connecting, collecting is a mode of relating that is asymmetric  at a psychological level. Even when two people know each other personally, if it is a collection relationship, one party — the collector — defines the relationship unilaterally and strives forcefully to make that definition prevail. This striving is the essence of Eric Cartman’s signature line on South Park: “Respect my AUTHORITAH!”


Once authoritah has been effectively imposed, it can be exercised in dramatically leveraged and highly deterministic ways. A single phone call can move mountains, without tedious consultation, arguments, second-guessing or questioning. Connecting is for normal, nice people. Collecting is for people who are headed for either world domination or madness.

The Collector Archetype

The clearest instances of the collector archetype are children, though not all children are collectors. Collection behavior is clearest when children want to perform. When very young children decide to perform, they often forcefully collect an audience by preying on the natural indulgence of adults.

I still vividly remember an example of this from my teen years. During a large family gathering one summer, a very young cousin of mine (he was perhaps four) wanted to play his toy drum. He gathered a dozen family members in a circle around him — parents, aunts, uncles, cousins — and got started. When, after a few minutes of indulgent listening to the unmusical cacophony, some of the adults tried to leave, he got extremely upset and dragged them back.

Good examples of the childlike collector archetype persisting into adulthood include the character of Alan Garner in the Hangover trilogy (who “collects” a set of “friends” he dubs the wolf pack) and Lenny in Of Mice and Men

But if they successfully evolve to fully functioning adulthood, collectors graduate from child-like preying on adult indulgence, to adult patterns of authoritah.

Eric Cartman is an interesting character because his collection behaviors are of the adult variety, but are exercised in the context of a child’s life, with a child’s level of objective understanding of basic environmental facts. When Cartman fails to exercise authoritah effectively, it is usually because he is tripped up by some basic ignorance rather than a flaw in his attempt at exercising authoritah.

In South Park, the only real member of Cartman’s entourage is the completely malleable Butters. Others mostly go along with his schemes because resistance is exhausting to the point of being futile. Cartman is not a natural leader. He ends up leading the gang most of the time primarily because he is prepared to expend prodigious amounts of energy  to get his way. More energy than the others are willing to put into resisting him.

But energy alone is not enough. Cartman is not the smartest of the gang, but he possesses social cunning, which manifests as an ability to manipulate the social realities of others. He is able to do this not because he understands social realities better (though that is sometimes the case), but because he values them less and is therefore more willing to damage them to get his way. What is sacred to others is not sacred to Cartman.

And nothing is more sacred to most people than the human quality of relationships. Devaluing the human element in relationships is at the heart of the difference between collection and connection, and the essence of authoritah.

Collection versus Connection

The most unpredictable part of our natural environment as humans is other people. To connect to another human being is to value this unpredictability and accommodate it willingly.  The patterns of willing mutual accommodation we accept in our lives constitute our social realities.

To effectively collect other human beings, however, is to render them predictable rather than accommodating their natural unpredictability. To exercise authoritah at scale is to render social realities as predictable and controllable as material realities.

Authoritah is to collection as authority is to connection. It is an approach that leads to endless frustration if you are weak and have nothing to offer to people you want to collect. Frustration that can degenerate into madness. But if you have something to offer — wealth, brains, influence, beauty, childlike cuteness, power — it is an extraordinarily high-leverage and scalable approach.

Collecting is an unfamiliar behavior to connectors. When you connect with someone, the definition of the relationship is arrived at via consensus. Following is in most cases a degraded form of connecting — a partially defined asymmetric relationship that aspires to full-relationship status.

Connecting is the basis of the social graph metaphor: a space of relationships whose idealized primitive building block is a one-to-one relationship based on mutual recognition.  Recognition in this philosophical sense is about more than identification in the information-theoretic sense of connecting names to unique faces. To recognize someone is to acknowledge them as fully human and with an equal claim to defining the relationship. In fact, the core underlying assumption is stronger: that there is a whole-greater-than-parts element to relationships that can only be unlocked if the relationship is defined by consensus. So with mutual recognition, the value in the relationship lies in the fact that it is mutually defined.

Collecting though, is a mode of relating that does not recognize or value the mutuality of relationships. Collectors do not see the philosophical point of arriving at a definition of a relationship through consensus unless there is a material reason to do so. At best, they are able to recognize the practical costs of non-consensual definitions and the computable utilitarian potential of “win win” frames. They can weigh the costs and benefits of allowing a certain amount of accommodation of others’ agendas through negotiation. But this is not based on philosophical and psychological recognition of the humanity of the other.

For a collector, the fundamental building block of relationships is the labeled container rather than the one-to-one link. Social reality is subjectively organized as a set of labeled containers that overlap and nest in various ways. Relationships evolve via collectees being moved through a sequence of different containers.

This might seem like a minor distinction at the level of preferred representations (graphs versus Venn diagrams) conceptual metaphors (links versus containers) and tools (Facebook friendships versus Google+ Circles or Twitter Lists), but it is not. When relationships are managed through the container metaphor, they become fundamentally more authoritarian than when they are managed through the link metaphor. The medium is the message. The message of containerized relationships is authoritah.

Authoritarian Relationship Management

Collecting is an authoritarian high-modernist way of  organizing social realities. Where there is authoritarian high modernism, there will be illegible realities being ignored.

It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that collection is about ignoring non-instrumental aspects of relationships, but that is  not true. Both connectors and collectors can approach relationships in instrumental and non-instrumental (or appreciative) ways. Collectors just don’t need appreciation to be mutual. Connectors can arrive at an instrumental relationship via consensus.

So the real distinction lies in the fact that collectors make no distinction between social realities and other kinds of realities. They appreciate individuals the same way they appreciate fine wine or art. They view people instrumentally the same way they view hammers. Connectors on the other hand, view relationships as a different category of reality. In terms of Mike Travers’ recent post, connectors make a deep distinction between I-it and I-you aspects of being. Collectors make no such distinction. 

At the root of the collector-connector distinction is the connector’s desire for belongingConnectors want to belong to relationships and allow the whole to subsume the parts. Collectors, by contrast, want to own relationships (as an aside, it is possible to belong in a relationship to a tool rather than owning it — this is ironically the essence of “mastery” of a tool).

Curiously, both experience relationships in a true way. The value in mutuality and consensual definition of relationships that connectors see is a function of mutual empathy. So connection is a characteristic mode of relating for high-empathy individuals, while collecting is characteristic of low-empathy individuals. In terms of the archetypes I introduced in The Gervais Principle, collectors are either Sociopaths (not the same as the clinical kind) or Clueless. Connectors are Losers.

When one party in a relationship has an empathy deficit, only a surplus of empathy on the other end (such as in a parent-child relationship, or priestly compassion for a convicted felon) can turn the relationship into a connection. Otherwise, it defaults to a collection relationship, and the lower-empathy party becomes the collector.

It is not that collectors are entirely incapable of connecting, or that connectors are entirely incapable of collecting. It just feels unnatural and takes extra work.

To collect, a natural connector must actively work to dehumanize the collectee. To connect, a natural collector must find a way to actively humanize the connectee. Or to put it another way, to the collector, people are objects until proven human-like-me. To the connector, people are human-like-me unless proven to be objects.

Though I resisted the conclusion while thinking through the ideas in this post, I am afraid I am almost certainly a collector by default. In my defense though, I am only a slightly evil kind of collector: an internal collector. I mostly impose authoritah inside my own head, turning it into a clean, well-lighted place. This isn’t real authoritah at all. Real authoritah is about active, externally directed collection behaviors: coercion. 

To understand the distinction between internal and external exercise of authoritah, and active and passive collection, we have to understand the collection process and how it differs from the connection process.

Game-Breaks and Kill-Chains

The process of connecting is a process of gradually strengthening a relationship link from nothing to deep mutual trust via a series of escalating transactions. This series of transactions includes a moment that I call a game-break: a moment when two people see each other as fully human. I discussed game breaks in my post The Tragedy of Wiio’s Law (that’s a 2009 post, and I have modified my views somewhat since then, but not in ways that matter here).

Only once in the sixteen year run of South Park has Eric Cartman ever experienced a game-break, in the episode Tsst! where the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan, more adept at imposing authoritah than Cartman himself, drives Cartman to desperation with his dominance methods. Eric prepares to kill his mother (trying and failing along the way to get others to join his plot), but at the last minute, experiences a game-break where he recognizes the humanity of his mother. Of course, recidivism follows at the end of the episode.

But the default collection process involves no such game-break moment of mutual recognition of humanity. There is therefore a meat-market quality to it (quite literally in the case of South Park. In an episode on the cruelty of veal production, Cartman is the only one in the gang who sees the baby cows as meat rather than suffering creatures).

So it is not surprising that the process of relating via collecting is eerily similar to what the military calls a kill chain, a process with six stages: find, fix track, target, engage, assess (FFTTEA). 

In the military version, engage is an euphemism for some flavor of destroy while assess is an euphemism for “make sure the right amount of damage has been done.”

The similarity is not accidental. Collection is a fundamentally violent mode of relating to another human being. The violence arises from the failure to recognize (let alone value) the non-zero-sum value of mutuality. The collectee can feel violated even if no harm is done, because the authoritarian assertion of a unilateral definition for the relationship destroys the value that might-have-been: a fully human connection.

Internal collection — my default mode — is a kill-chain that puts people into mental categories.  Engage to me often means I’ve “figured out” somebody to my satisfaction. This manifests as a tag-and-bag pattern of engage-and-assess. Once I’ve figured someone out, I label them and put them in a mental pigeonhole. The labels are generally behavioral categorizations such as interesting guy or time-waster. 

It might take me a few trial attempts, but once I am done, it usually ends there. If I want to relate to the person in an active way, any overture I make is likely to be in the form of a free choice offered to the other. Depending on whether the person accepts or rejects the overture, I mentally move them to different containers. If I don’t want to actively relate, then the only way a person can move from one container to another in my head is if they do something that genuinely surprises me. Or if a game-break is accidentally triggered and I end up in a connection process rather than a collection process.

Yes, it is a thoroughly awful way to relate to people. I have a mental box for people who think this is awful.

Kidding aside, being on the receiving side of an internal collection process is not a pleasant experience. It is like being handled by an indifferent bureaucrat who does not recognize your humanity, but merely checks off boxes on a form describing you, that you are not allowed to see (or in the case of the classic David Spade sketch on Saturday Night Live, about a receptionist  who forces Jesus to take a number and wait, super-humanity).

Awful though it might seem, internal collection is nothing compared to external collection.

External collection is a kill-chain where engage-and-assess map to situate-and-motivate. It is about putting people in external situations that suit you, and motivating them to behave in ways that conform to your designs.

This often, but not always, requires an element of active control. Control attempts that can escalate all the way to the kind of coercion made famous by Vito Corleone: make him an offer he cannot refuse. 

Somebody you’ve collected might already be where you want them, doing what you want them to do. In such a case, keeping an eye on them is sufficient: passive external exercise of authoritah. But you might also have to pick-and-place them where you want them. You might need to create containers in the process, if no extant container meets your needs.

So if internal collection is about mapping social reality with a set of mental containers, external collection is about altering social reality by terraforming the landscape of available social containers — organizations and social groups — and moving people around on that landscape until everybody is where you want them, doing what you want them to be doing.

This is the exercise of authoritah.

Authoritah versus Authority

The difference between authority and authoritah is that we recognize and gladly follow authority, but we succumb to authoritah. Though authoritah is a mode of relating that applies to all relationships made by a collector, only the active, external kind of collecting behavior involves coercion.

Connectors, as I have noted, arrive at the definition of relationships through consensus rather than coercion. Authority is one possible basis for a consensual definition. When you establish a relationship with a doctor, you might acknowledge his/her authority on matters biological and define the relationship so that it is asymmetric in specific ways.

There are other potential bases for establishing connections, all of which are derived, in one way or the other, from reasonable assumptions that both sides agree to, or from mutual acknowledgement of potential sum-greater-than-parts value (which may or may not have a history of transactions and a game-break attached).

The point is, the structure of relationships is derived in sound ways from realities acknowledged by both sides. If there is no basis for a proposed relationship, both sides either agree to make a leap of faith, or part ways because of a he-said-she-said pattern of disagreement where neither can convince the other.

Authoritah, on the other hand, is necessarily a coercive force. To exercise authoritah, the collector looks for a basis for unilateral persuasion rather than common ground, as connectors do. Depending on the relative status and power of the collector and collectee, this might manifest in different ways.

In civilized society, where putting severed horse-heads in people’s beds is frowned upon, making offers that are impossible to refuse involves reality distortion fields. 

Reality Distortion Fields

If extreme physical or emotional violence is not an option, and the connectee appears immune to flattery or incentives, the collector is likely to resort to bullshit: a pattern of persuasion based on indifference to the truth/falsity of what is being said.  But bullshit deployed as part of the exercise of authoritah is no ordinary bullshit.

Ordinary bullshit can be casual and unfocused, but bullshit deployed as part of the exercise of authoritah is like a laser beam. It drives the collectee relentlessly towards accepting the relationship structure proposed by the collector.

Authoritah works its magic primarily by wearing down the collectee. It becomes so exhausting to penetrate the relentless barrage of bullshit, cajoling, threats, flattery, intimidation, pandering and bullying that you end up yielding. When this happens, you’ve been assimilated into a reality distortion field of the sort attributed to Steve Jobs and charismatic leaders of kool-aid cults who drive their followers to suicide.

On South Park, there are many excellent examples of such reality distortion. In the episode where Eric Cartman wants to get himself invited to Kyle’s birthday party in place of Butters, the distortion involves an elaborate scheme to convince Butters that the world is about to end. In this example, Cartman doesn’t actually believe his own bullshit. But in another instance, where Cartman wants to claim credit for a joke written by Jimmy, the reality distortion includes himself.

Whether the field is a field of light or shadow, whether it produces iPads or mass suicides, and whether or not the collector needs to believe his own bullshit in a specific case, it needs a source of energy.

While the expression of authoritah involves a great deal of bullshit, the fact that it creates an irresistible directional pressure on relationship structure suggests that there is something that is not-fake at its core.

It takes a great deal of energy to force one relationship after another to conform to an imposed definition. It takes coherence in the definition to generate coherent patterns of behavior on the part of the collectee. In more complex cases, where entire organizations must be built, the energy must flow through others, without being dissipated or altered along the command flow pathways.

Undirected bullshit — fear-uncertainty-doubt — creates confusion rather than decisive, convergent movement towards a stable and predictable social order.

So a true reality distortion field is powered by the collector’s coherent inner energy of total conviction. The social reality they want to achieve via an imposition of authoritah seems absolutely necessary to them. There is no room for ambiguity. No slack that others can use to pursue independent agendas.

In other words, reality distortion fields projected by collectors do not randomly scramble the environment into chaos. Quite the opposite: they gradually induce structure in both material and social realities (which, remember, are indistinguishable for collectors).

I won’t get into what makes some reality distortion fields produce iPads and others produce mass suicides, since that is another long and complicated story that I haven’t yet fully worked out to my satisfaction. Suffice it to say, the line between the two is a thin one.

Let me conclude instead, with thoughts on how to resist authoritah.

Resistance to Authoritah

The simplest pattern of resistance to authoritah is the one that emerges between internal and external collectors. When the two patterns are both passive, or active but happen to match, you get a beautifully frictionless partnership. In such cases, the internal collector is usually on the “collected” end of the external relationship. But because the patterns match, it works. This is the sort of case where a phone call can move mountains. This is why I suspect, since many people “collect” me, that I am more likely to be on the receiving end of a Don Corleone style phone call than the initiating end.

But when they are in conflict, the result is a contest of wills that looks like an irresistible force acting on an immovable object.

In a way, internal and external collectors are evil twins of one another. Internal collectors seem stubbornly, irrationally independent minded to external collectors. External collectors are immediately tagged by internal collectors as people who make impossible demands.

A more complex pattern of resistance develops when both collector and collectee are external collectors in active mode. This leads to no-holds-barred war of wills.

The most complex pattern of resistance is the one that develops between connectors and external collectors. Here, the connector’s only real hope (assuming physical dominance or disengagement is not an option) is to force the collector to see him/her as human. Force a game-break in short. This is why, for instance, maintaining steady, silent eye contact while being collected is an effective tactic. It is a projection of the thought, You are being judged by a human; I will not let you escape the fact that I am human while you are collecting me in a coercive way. Curiously, this tactic can also work if a third party “bears witness” to a coercive external collection attempt.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. The analogy to lasers is a good one.

    An amplifier that *isn’t* in a resonant chamber can be “pumped” with energy and left waiting for a seed pulse. In much the same way, a group can be set on edge with cognitive dissonance, after which any authoritative statement that relieves this will sweep through and be greatly strengthened. This gets trickier the more energy is stored, though, to the point of needing specialized jargon. Laser jocks talk of “suppression of amplified spontaneous emission” because un-suppressed ASE wastes energy in the best case, and can blow a hole in the side of a really strong laser system. Witch hunts seem to follow a similar pattern of runaway copying of noise, in a system jonesing for signal.

  2. Casino Royale demonstrates this well: the game-break between Bond and Vesper when Bond realizes the empathy toward others through her emotions, followed by the suicide of this empathy for the sake of the state.

  3. Does Horace Slughorn (Harry Potter fame) & his Slug Club qualify?


    several viewing options for the south park episode ‘tsst’ mentioned above

  5. Good stuff! The association of ordered pattern of social knowledge and categorisation with is something that’s been observed a few times, not sure how much Foucault you’ve got into, but it’s very strong there.

    I think a strong difference between the internal and the external collector is that the former has respect for truth, in the sense of context independent or outside-context reality. Very often, those following external strategies behave like the party in 1984, specifically in that they assume that by acting on a social domain, via threats, lies and demands, they can structure the environment of others, that they can envelop them completely.

    But if you understand that any attempt to construct or distort reality on a human scale is subject to vastly complex outside conditions, then you are less willing to just assign effort in order to overcome them. This is even more true if you are actually interested in the mysteries of the world, which will by necessity be different to the categories you already understand.

    A few non-destructive knocks to the ego probably help as well! But regardless, when you have such an understanding that categories can be created, but enforcing them brings various problems, you gain a fundamentally different metaphysics, in that surprises will come to your system of categories, so you might as well try and get advanced warning, find ways to align your categories and self-identity to avoid substantial shocks, rather than putting effort into active management.

    The whole question of cults collapsing into suicide is a complex one, although my basic idea on the failure of cults is that their ego/group protecting mechanisms of past-erasure, opposition-weakening and bullshit start to get in the way of their actual functioning as a machine for affirming the worldview of the cult leaders (or inner group). They self-create themselves into an untenable position. I would guess that most functioning delusional egotists have various cracks in their wall that let in reality, whether in dark moments, what you call game breaks, “exceptional people” they allow to be honest with them, or in depersonalised arms length studies or metrics.

    Interestingly, I think you could also contrast the collector with the con-man; they also try to encapsulate and simplify people, but they expect that it will only last for a while, and from what I can tell, gain their self-satisfaction in a similar manner to an athlete, not in the integrity of their constructed worlds or projects themselves, but in the general skills of creating them. In that world, reality is not something to be supplanted, or to be succinctly and economically responded to, but to be held off or avoided for as long as possible.

    It also occurs to me that problem people face in trying to change the world is that they aim for collaborative world-reengineering and miss, hitting collector behaviour instead. It makes me imagine a graph of categorisers linked to social revolutionaries via the collector node, with the “collective hacker node” forming a slowly growing useful side path via it’s distributed model ownership and strong low-bullshit quick-feedback ethos, a conversational attitude quite contrary to the collector one.