Monthly Archives: July 2004

Natural economies

A recent book called The New Economy of Nature attempts to offer ways in which current economic preogatives can be made to accomodate environmentally friendly policies. In other words, to make conservation and what not profitable, to find a way to make a free market favor greener entrepreneurship. This may be a laudably “realistic” approach to eco-economics, acknowledging that no one, no matter how enlightened their self-interest, is going to enact environmental initiatives t lsoe money. Of course, the government is supposed to exist to subsidize environmental protection and regulation; the state’s primary function is to force through policy that is good for all, but not profitable for any one in particular. Only in a country where the state had so betrayed its purpose and had become a ramplant plutocracy, should businesses need to be bribed or enticed to assume the responsibility to protect the environment.

This book’s effort shows how hegemonic is the notion that seeking profit is natural, a natural as the environment itself, and that human beings can’t be expected to be motivated by anything else. But that’s obviously not true, which makes this book part of the problem, by its perhaps inadvertant reinforcement and naturalization of that idea. Neo-classical ecomonics likes to present itself as simple common-sense truth, and every effort must be made to remind ourselves that the greedy, self-serving subject (and the magical marketplace he enjoys) imagined by neoclassical economics is produced by this theory; it is not a natural fact.

Because it may seem like profit and environmental concern can comfortably coincide, but they probably can’t. Environmental abuse matters because it is, at its root, human abuse of other humans, the same thing that is at the root of exploitation for profit. When nature is exploited for profit, it’s one group expropriating what rightly belongs to all, in order to make a profit from it at some other group’s expense. This is most obvious in the extractive practices of imperialism, stripping colonies of resources for the benefit of the homeland and to the detriment of the natives. Even if this is done in an ecologically sound way, it still sucks, it undermines the purpose of bothering to protect the environment in the first place. If the people who inhabit it are worth nothing, than the land itself is nothing; it may as well be raped. One has to end the exploitation of humans by other humans to stop the exploitation of nature. The latter is just an iteration of the former.

As Zoe Young points out in her TLS review of the book, the real issue underlying environmental economics is “unequal access to resources.” The profit motive depends on this, and contemporary politics revolve around it, with US policy geared toward assuring America’s unfair lion’s share. It will never be a market function for developed nations to permit themselves to be exploited by the groups they are in the habit of exploiting. It will require something outside of economics to bring about a more ecologically healthy world, something more like charity. Could there be a natural basis for that in humans?

Mass meanings

I was reading a book by James Twitchell called ADCULT USA, which purports to be a fair and balanced appraisal of role of advertising in contemporary culture, and certainly is as even-handed as anything you’d hear on Fox News. Like all apologists for the ad industry, Twitchell has to postulate a certain kind of human being in order to jusify a society where the proliferation of “commercial speech” is not seen as detrimental, but is instead seen as rational, inevitable, a product of technology finally catching up to what humankind has always wanted. (Which is a good example the kind of thinking that works up those who denounce teleological views of history, which always justify what exists as inevitable, as the purposeful and logical end of all that had preceded it.) Twitchell arges that “getting and spending” are inherently fascinating, that humans by their nature seek to enrich their lives’ meaning through endless exchanges. The latter may be true, but these exchanges have only recently become conceived of as shopping exchanges, as a trade of money for a thing. Twitchell claims that humans are fundamentally enamoured of things, as opposed to being interested in things as means to some larger activity. Exchanging things socially constitutes an activity, but acquiring things for their own sake is an aberration, isn’t it? To defend what ads do, which is to reinforce through repetition the climate in which owning things is seen as preferable to (or at least a viable substitute for) doing things or making things or engaging in some kind of social activity, one must claim a natural fascination for things in themselves, and scoff at the notion of use value. Ads, by injecting dead things with meanings not inherent to them, by relating the great mass of heterogenous things into a system that makes them eloquent, allows them to speak one’s class status or articulate one’s social aspirations, help to bury use value under an avalanche of new and often arbitrary meanings, would-be exchange values entirely contingent on fashion and whim, on how far advertising’s message has penetrated.

When we consume, in most cases, what we are bent on consuming are these meanings, which is rooted in the object’s social meaning, which is fomented, articultaed, spread and sometimes generated by advertising — the staus in objects stems from this, our media exists largely to assign this status to consumer goods, whether through reviews or ads or simple display. We lost touch with the use vlaue for most of things in our world, we know only a desire for these ephemeral meanings, which a more diversified media and a more completely ubiquitous ad presence, helps manufacture, prodcing an endless wealth of them, ever changing and ever proliferating. With more media, there are more meanings than ever, and the more there are, the less likely it is we’ll be able to sate our appetite of them, as there will always be another one to inspire us down another acquisitive chain.

For attaching meanings to things has the effect of reifying meaning, making meaning something we accumulate quantitatively. When only feel the mastery of understanding what a concept means by accumulating all the things attached to it. We understand meaning in music and art by collecting it rather than studying it. We hae large book collections to testify to our mastery of certain subjects. We need to signify our masery of certain soheres of meaning by displaying the right objects — increasingly, there is no other way to have that understanding recognized than there objects. Knowledge needs to be certfied socially, to be recognized, and more and more, the only way to earn social respect and notice is through brute acquisition, through being able to display the right accoutrements.

This is the consumer society’s ultimate triumph, to connect knowledge with ownership, to habituate everyone to thinking through commodities, to understanding their own limits and their own potential only through commodities, those things that can be bought and sold, which of course, we all natually enjoy so much.

The game show intellectual

An upcoming book called The Know-it-all documents a man’s effort to become the “smartest man in the world” by reading the encyclopaedia. Now I know the premise is a joke, and the synopsis I just gave is the marketing spin, the book nevertheless trades on a pernicious notion that typifies the fate of knowledge in a consumer capitalist society. Knowledge is really about thinking processes, about having the wherewithal to break things down or recombine ideas to create new understanding. It is about setting ideas in motion, since nothing static, no fixed idea can be said to have any truth to it — “truth” is always in flux, always shifting as it is perceived from different angles. We must always be in the process of revising our understanding of things to reflect the many facets and perspectives available on any given phenomenon. This is the essesnce of dialectics — to keep dialectics “sharp” is to refuse to let any knowledge become static and universally true, that is to refuse to reify knowledge into a fact. Knowledge is practical, useful; it allows you to act. Facts are flat, static, famously “stupid things.” They allow you not to act, but to covet and own information independent of its usefulness, the same way comic book collectors own titles far too valuable to read.

Of course, the Encyclopaedia does nothing but reify thought into fact, turning a living process into a congealed thing. It turns useful information into so much trivia. It is the literal embodiment of knowledge as a collection rather than an activity. Consumer capitalism encourages this transformation because it mainly deals in things, only knows how to account for things, and reckons value in terms of sheer quantity rather than quality or sophistication or depth. In capitalist society, collectors supplant workers; or rather, people identify more with what they collect than what they do. We might laugh at the ludicrous premise of The Know-it-all, and think it absurd that one can become smart by knowing the greatest number of facts, but most Americans do conceive of intelligence this way. They connect it to the amassing of trivia, which is why they have nothing but contempt for intellectuals, who as nothing but banks of useless disconnected facts about things, seem to regular people to be frivoulously wasting themselves on ephemera, confirming to regular people their secret happiness at not being an intellectual, and confirming how right they are not to better inform themselves about anything at all. Hell, if I weren’t so ignorant, these upright Americans think, I might end up like one of those worthless game show contestants. The game show in America is where the intellectuals are defined, produced: intellectuals are shown to have nothing to do with how the world actually works, but as vain, weirdly arrogant and awkward know-it-alls who can name all the generals in the Napoleanic wars but are helpless in the face of a real problem. When Americans think of intellectuals, they think of the folks on Jeopardy! — consider the recent fascination with the man who has won for thirty-some straight days on the show (The Know-it-all, too, includes a section where the author tries to get on game shows, that alleged proving ground of the intellect). He is lionized, considered to be the apotheosis of what an intellectual in America can accomplish, but is also regarded as a wacky freak, proving again that intellectuals are mere fodder for entertainment and nothing more, equivalent to the fire-eater and the guy whose whole body is tattooed.

Because when intelligence is reified as a quantity, intellectuals are by definition greedy hoarders of too many facts. They are inherently excessive, like the man with too many tattoos or the man who weighs four hundred pounds, like misers. They read the encylopaedia from cover to cover. But that doesn’t make you smart, that’s guaranteed to make you stupid, to destroy the connection between knowledge and action, what’s referred to in critical-theory jargon as “practice” or, even more pretentiously, “praxis.” All you have is a jumble of facts with no intention of ever applying them (except on the dog-and-pony parade of game shows). This is what consumer capitalism does — it makes intelligence into facts, and intellectuals into those who indiscriminately gather them, making them a collection of stupid people who think they are smarter than everyone else because they can rattle off world capitals or leaders whose names start with the letter R.Hopefully The Know-it-all satirizes rather than reaffirms this insane process.

Harry Potter, Market Wiz

In this essay — The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Harry Potter, Market Wiz — a French writer argues that Harry Potter exists in a capitalist universe that undermines the very nature of childhood daydreaming and fantasizing by bounding it with the laws and values of market-driven consumerism. According to this writer, “Hogwarts is a pitiless jungle where competition, violence and the cult of winning run riot.”

Now, I’ve read a total of zero of the Harry Potter books, but I’m surprised that anyone else would be shocked to find that the universe there would mirror the one we currently live in, where kids look forward to shopping, and conceive of magic as a matter of owning the latest technological marvels, be they GameBoys or X-Boxes or what have you. I think of the imagination it takes for most of us to imagine a world where the confines of capitalism aren’t the underlying basis of values, even for those of us who are desperately trying to fashion such a world, and I’m hardly surprised that a children’s author would reflexively incorporate such things as the criticism of bureaucrats and the celebration of entrepreneurship that this op-ed author chastizes her for. We all know without having to reflect how pleasurable it is to own, how right it feels to acquire more, even when we already have more than we can use. We know the pleasures of winning. We all scorn the findings of social scientists that undermine our sense of personal autonomy, and champion those classic arguments in favor of personal control, of our individual uniqueness and our inviolable freedom to make whatever choices we want. Harry Potter is probably afforded the same panoply of choices we are offered, the only choice he can’t make is the choice to reject the underlying system that lends logic to our values, that makes a reckoning of good and evil possible — measuring what is bad by how much productivity it prevents, measuring ourselves against others by how much we own, etc.

But I am rambling. The point is, How many books don’t re-create the capitalist world’s assumptions? Such books would be barely comprehensible by most of the reading public, and even if they could understand them, they would reject them vehemently, and they certainly would not rise to the level of notoriety where a scholar working in a different language would have felt the need to respond to them. I can’t think of any, save explicitly radical works like Monique Wittig’s novels. And if you’ve tried to read those, you’ll know what I mean about incomprehensibility.

That the Times printed this fairly mediocre asssessment of the Harry Potter phenomenon has nothing to do with the argument espoused, of course. They are more interested in belittling French culture while reassuring Americans that university thinking about culture is hopelessly inane and perverse, reading a bunch of foolishness into perfectly obvious children’s books, which should obviously be taken at face value, like all otehr entertainment product. And that’s a shame, because that’s really the French writer’s point: Harry Potter feels so perfectly obvious and accessible because it so wholeheartedly adopts bedrock prejudices of consumer capitalism, and children reading them are certainly being indoctrinated into those precepts — the palpable presence of them makes the reading feel right, I’m sure; even children, maybe especially children, can pick up the synchronicity between the books and the values espoused by all the other media they consume, and they respond enthusiastically to these things that promise a complete coherent system. That the system is perfectly ideological only makes its completion possible, conceivable.

Texts, be they children’s books or op-ed pages, can’t exist without an ideological matrix that makes them coherent. America seems to take special care to obfuscate that fact, and pretend its media exist in some perfectly “spin-free” space, as if that would be preferable even if it were possible. Fox News goes farthest with this, offering the most extremely distorting right-wing propaganda as mere reportage, and then flattering its viewers with the notion that they “decide” what is true, or what to believe, as if their feelings on the matter have anything at all to do with what is really actually happening. This is the height of idiocy, akin to those USA Today polls that ask uninformed citizens to give their opinions on substantitive matters, and then report the results as newsworthy, as having some bearing on reality: 75% of Americans believe Saddam Hussein worked with Bin Laden, therefore it’s that likely to be true. All of this is a result of people being encouraged to believe in an unreasonable individualism that claims that they can choose perfectly the world the wish to live in and clouds their minds to all the rather obvious ways this isn’t so. That they believe that they can “decide” about news reports shows just how much they are clouded. But in truth, our opinions about Iraq don’t matter, our belief about what has happened in the Middle East has no bearing on what is going on. It’s not all subjective, as people seem to love to say about more and more of experience — a nicely defensive posture that permanently protects you from ever seeming ignorant. But as long as we do think our opinions shape our own private reality, we won’t waste our time figuring out what really happened in the shared world, and we’ll live in a fantasy world based entirely on what we choose to believe, which will very likely, come to think of it, resemble that world Harry Potter lives in, where conflicts are structured in such a way that a child could immediately understand them and resolve what is right and wrong within them, where individuals always trump bureaucracies and personal profit is king, where passive ownership and magic makes everything happen.

Best dressed idiocy

Is there anything more infuriatingly inane than a “Best Dressed Man” list? Not to say best-dressed lists for women aren’t insulting enough, reducing a woman’s competence to how attractive she’s able to appear. Maybe there’s a crude leveling in afflicting men with the same insecurities. But only the garment and publishing industries truly profit from this new equality in feeling prefiguring by one’s accessories.

Since fashion functions not by evolving toward some higher truth but by simply, constantly, predictibly changing, any value judgment made in regards to it makes no sense, has no reference point. There is no “truth” to any criterion — an assessment can make no reference to higher notions of idealized truth or practicality or rationality or anything. Such claims about striped ties or the relative lengths of cuffs and collars are simply lionizing a random point on an always-spinning wheel. But in truth, trying to master the details of fashion is never a matter of learning specific details and pointers like the ones adumbrated in Best Dressed Lists, it’s a matter of understanding that systematic process of change, of having a sense of when things must change, to keep those fixated on details guessing. The magazines, slavish to demands of their fashion-house advertisers, then disseminate the arbitrary shifts with the absolute, ahistorical (and schizophrenic, as a consequence) language that proclaims these new ideas as eternal truths that everyone has just been too dim to perceive before. If there is reference to the past, it is to “classic” and “timeless” looks which are anything but, as an entirely new look has been chosen to be so designated. There is no stable Golden age to which terms like classic can apply to. The classic era is always shifting and moving, too. And of course the compulsion to be classic is joined with a contradictory admonition to look contemporary, or modern; or to look modernly classic, or classically modern. The incoherence of this advice is the key to its efficacy — you are being encouraged not to think rationally, but to revel in the confused fugue state brought on by irrationality, which pleases the consumer because it makes it seem like anything, no matter how absurd, is possible (just look at beer commercials or truck commercials on television).

Of course the people who make best dressed lists do so not because of their sartorial aplomb, but because they have effective PR people and they are promoting some new film or record, or they effectively serve as symbols of a desirable leisured class — royalty — that we’re all eager to emulate and thereby imagine ourselves climbing the social ladder. But the truly rich and powerful don’t really care how they dress, as their power draws from real sources — actual land and wealth and social connection. They’ll cooperate with the fashion industry, because it affirms their power and invests them with further social capital, but they would survive without it. But the fashion industry needs them to serve as stimulus to their lessers, so they invest a lot in gaining the ability to dress the rich and powerful and famous — hence the dresses given away for the Oscars, etc. The reason why the best dressed look “good” is because they are selected to before the fact and dressed in whatever style the fashion industry needs them to adopt, which is then touted as the superlative style. We know it’s good because the rich, famous guy is wearing it. Exposed to this kind of thing often enough, that even the tautologous reversal that we know he is rich and famous because he looks good begins to take hold.

What’s so infuriating about all this is how in these lists the stylishness allegedly evinced is supposed to come from innate personal qualities and smart fashion decisions within anyone’s grasp, rather than being the product of an enormous industry apparatus coupling itself to the long-accrued prestige of the privleged classes. The habitus of the rich is beyond most people, no matter what brand label they buy, because that aristocratic bearing is the product of an ingrained sense of entitlement that one must be raised with to feel, and to have animate unconsciously the gestures with which one moves through the world. But these lists obfuscate that, and encouage you to feel bad that you lack this natural grace, and urge to buy more crap to try to get it, a move which will inevitably fail, make you feel worse, and more vulnerable to the same pitch to buy more crap the next time. The point: “style” is never personal. It is always socially produced, and never within one’s individual control.

The perfect commodity, your own body

I was reading a book review about a few recent books on plastic surgery, which offered up the idea that it might be wise to consider plastic surgery not as a medical procedure but as a beauty product akin to lipstick or hair removal cream. What makes one want to resist that reclassifcation is in part the invasiveness of the surgery, the rejection of the sanctity of the body as some repository of ineffable selfhood. But that is what makes the surgery so attractive (as it makes tattoos and piercings so intriguing to people): it encroaches on a more permanent aspect of the self and seems a more significant and enduring alteration of identity, a more radical intervention on one’s own selfhood then buying a car or a tennis racket. We already accept (unfortunately) that consumption rather than activity shapes our selfhood, and that the things we own make us. Plastic surgery is an attempt to take possession of ourselves, make our body our own — this is how alienated we are by the consumption paradigm for self. Since we didn’t buy or choose our body, we don’t feel it really belongs to us, so we have to make efforts to buy it, to commodify it, through tattoos, nose jobs, and fat suctioning surgeries.
Commodification is not merely making natural resources into things that can be owned (reification, in Marxist jargon). It’s enabling one to enjoy self-aggrandizing fantasy narratives that revolve around objects — commodities allow you enjoy dreaming more than doing. Plastic surgery is a way to consume your own body as fantasy, to introduce it into that realm in which celebrities are consumed. It’s a way to not see what is there and see more than is there simultaneously when you look in a mirror. You don’t see what is there, because you have refashioned yourself for some larger purpose than standing in front of a mirror — you are seeing the fantasy for which you have prepared yourself, you are still seeing, too, what still yet needs to be done, you have surgery to better see the gaps between you and your ever-evolving ideal. Surgery enables you to have desire for yourself, to see yourself as that ever-elusive object of desire rather than to accept yourself as a given, as an integrated part of the you which desires. Body modification refuses to let you desire with your body, it makes you desire for your own body, which is now apart from you, a thing you own, a garden you tend.
And of course plastic surgery is an attempt to look more like others. There’s no value to a truly unique commodity in a system of emulative consumption. The things worth owning are the things your betters have: in this case, better breasts, better lips, better bone structure. The point is to look not like yourself, whatever that might have been, but to own the body and facial type invested with social value, that constitutes social capital — never mind that that changes faster than you can possibly change yourself. The point is the pursuit, the always renewed purpose and the ever more articulated fantasies it permits.
So plastic surgery evinces the drive to conformity that is inherent in a consumer society — not enough to have the same stuff, but now more and more mandatory to literally look exactly the same as every one else, too.

Of course, after all

The tell-tale “after all” — much like its cousin “of course” — in the following sentence, from T. H Breen’s The Marketplace of Revolution, alerts you to the sentence’s dubiousness, its presumption, its tenuousness, its speciousness: “After all, what ultimately separated the modern period from traditional history was the ability of ordinary men and women to establish a meaningful and distinct sense of self through the exercise of individual choice, a process of ever more egalitarian self-fashioning that was itself the foundation of a late eighteenth-century liberal society.” It’s breathtaking how much is conflated here, and how many contested terms (liberal society, self-fashioning, ordinary men, traditional history) are presented as resolved and unproblematic. An entire historical episteme is blithely reduced to a single concept, identity constuction through consumer choice. I agree that this consumer-identity was a new thing, and it was actively dispersed to “ordinary” people, but it’s not necessarily egalitarian, and it’s an open question whether this should be celebrated. It seems more like a simultaneously more precise and more covert mode of social control, where one takes upon oneself the duty of self-discipline and adherence to the social order almost unknowingly by voluntarily subjecting oneself to the whims of fashion and the debilitating obsessional desires for essentially meaningless things. It’s a false freedom, a mockery of the truly egalitarian, which would be an equal stake in activity, not passive consumption — making the society one lives in and wielding a respectable power, not the demoralized purchasing power earned after mind-numbingly pointless work.