The shutdown enabled by COVID-19 altered many social boundaries beyond the social distancing rule. For many who were not already working from home (working remotely or self-employed) COVID-19 stressed our already strained work-life balance. The boundary between private and public became blurred in a way like never before. For many, the work space and the life space became the same space. Through video chat coworkers, clients, and employers could remotely speak with you in the intimacy of your own home. The importance of maintaining a different headspace for work is underscored by the importance some place on maintaining different spaces, like a home-office, or a zoom background so that one can shut the door on work after 5 pm.
Yet COVID-19 didn’t just change the coordinates of work and play. COVID-19 underscored the spiritual exhaustion and political fragmentation that we face. Philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who recently passed away this August in 2020, expresses this exhaustion and social fragmentation as symbolic misery. His claim is that humans need a new mode of existence, a spiritual economy which renews their spirit instead of draining it. We need to thrive not just survive. We need to find our place in the world, to have direction and purpose as a people — not just to run in place and worry about interest rates making it so that we can’t run in place anymore.
The problem? We have deformed what the Romans called otium, which roughly translates into leisure. Otium is opposed with negotium (literally “not-otium” in Latin). Negotium constitutes acts that maintain subsistence, which include business and daily chores. Otium includes everything that is worry free, which includes prayer and self-transcendence.
During the medieval ages, monks lived a life of otium, divorced from everyday worries.
Without otium, we cannot find our place in the universe except through our work roles. Without otium, we have a loss of place, and with it, a loss of meaning, leading in a big way to the political fragmentation we currently have.
First, you might argue, wait:
What do you mean I have no free-time? After all, I can Netflix and chill.
That, my friends, is part of the problem. Netflix is part of managed economy activity (of course Netflix tries to manage how you spend your attention, even while you are on chilling). There’s no escape from the economy.
In other words, our free-time is also determined by the economy: by products, and commodities.
From a traditional Marxist point of view, only work is regulated through routine. After all, business requires specific actions at specific times to foster coordination: for products to be produced, services to be served and profit to be made. In other words, work is purely functional.
As it turns out, as Marx missed (perhaps in part because the economy wasn’t as advanced in his time as it is ours), that consumer technology is also functional. In general, consumer items are advertised and coveted for their functionality. When a commodity loses its function, (as with packaging or when a device breaks), we toss it. As consumer items are designed for specific utility, so when we interface with consumer items in our free-time, our deindividualized desires are colonized by that consumer functionality that has been created by the same rational processes that runs business (negotium).
Note: Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, describes desires that work as an integral part of our subjectivity as deindividual, that is, these desires are impersonal in how they operate. The channeling of these desires is the glue for all manner of human collectivity, be it in corporations, groups, clubs, religions, nations, ethnicities, cultures, genders, redheads, Star-Wars fans, Braveheart fans, Halloween enthusiasts… the list is exhausting as to the many purposes and manners by which people can collect/organize. As of this writing, apparently there are 620 million groups in Facebook indexed by Google. Each of those groups offer a shared means by which people can channel shared desires, finding alignment with others to express various deindividual desires.
In other words, otium, the time we use to find ourselves and our place in the world by expressing/developing the deindividual desires not focused for negotium, has been colonized for economic interests. Otium has been hijacked by negotium processes.
Human beings can without doubt subsist without existing. I believe, however, that such a subsistence is not sustainable: it becomes, rapidly, psychically and socially unbearable, because it leads inexorably to the liquidation of primordial narcissism. And this liquidation in turn leads to the liquidation of the law. That is, to the liquidation of what constitutes the condition of a demos: the difference between a fact and a right.
These claims seem borne out as our various body politics have become increasingly disrupted. People are often confused between what is factually true and what is a morally correct.
Stated another way, the loss of otium manufactures a meaning crisis. Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke outlines a project, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, to develop psychotechnology to enable individuals to awakening from our current crisis. (Here, I use psychotechnology as a technology of the psyche). Vervaeke matches awakening with relevancy, as an enlightened being is wise. However, Vervaeke does not explain the cause of this confusion; he instead seeks to outline a plan to end confusion.
In this essay, we go a different route than Vervaeke. I present, through Stiegler and others, how our current social confusion relates directly to lost coherency in our social body. While this essay offers the 10,000 foot view, the idea is to expose the influences on the attitudes, expectations, and worldviews that we do have, in part by noticing how capitalist psychotechnologies (like broadcast media, social media, the attention economy, and so on) alter our expectations and behaviors, skewing our worldview.
Stated in terms of relevancy, the problem is that we are so colonized by advertisements, product placements, and other concerns that our political body has fragmented, leading to spiritual exhaustion. This fragmentation results in our loss of a shared vision for the future, for all politics is about the future. At its core, this fragmentation comes from how we work, which is the subject of this essay.
This colonization happens in two ways as it relates to otium:
- the thinking that characterizes negotium still dictates, in large part what we do even on our time off, and
- our deindividual desires have become invested in consumer images instead of building alignment with other’s deindividual desires.
The remainder of this essay after these two points explore the consequences of our degradation of otium as it relates to politics, the future and work.
1 Work and the Loss of Otium
Planning for business, as pointed out by economist John Kenneth Galbraith in The New Industrial State, is characterized by rational calculation processes practiced by committees in large corporations. In addition to planning the production of their businesses, what these committees, these boards of directors and executives also do today is to plan how consumers consume, how people spend their leisure.
Historically this focus is missed as most critiques of labor come from a Marxist point of view. While Marx spoke of how the laborer became instrumentalized by business, he did not recognize how technology could also similarly treat the consumer.
Philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls instrumentalization grammartization. From The Decadence of Industrial Democracies: Disbelief and Discredit, written in 2004, Stiegler writes
As I have frequently recalled, [Gilbert] Simondon analyses the proletarianization of work as a loss of individuation, where the worker who was once the technical individual, becomes the servant of the tool-bearing machine, which becomes the new technical individual. Thus the reality of proletarianization is, the more pauperization, the worker’s loss of knowledge, the worker tending to become unskilled pure labor force — and lacking any motive to work beyond the need to subsist.
As workers become trained to fit the process of machines, so they begin to lose touch with the very material they are supposed to have knowledge of. For instance, if a machine could do all the carving for you, maybe the only things, as a wood carver, you’d need to know is how to prep, maintain, and operate the machine. You wouldn’t need to know much about wood or wood carving tools.
Stiegler states that this kind of proletarianization and loss of individuation with work also happens through contemporary consumerism. The reason is fairly straightforward.
American advertisers originally sold consumer items based on their utility.
The current American economic system started post-World War 2, so let’s start with some advertising from that era.
This kind of advertisement is not the only kind, as we see in the next section, but for now, keep in mind that, consumer items were sold for their utility, so the behavior of consumers also became utilitarian.
Having a tool or device can encourage you to follow a particular process as that device works. When the device works as presented in the commercial, we say it is as advertised.
After all, if you paid $15,000 for a bike, you’d want to make sure you’d received the desired benefits from that bike.
Of course, benefits can vary, depending on what floats your boat. Some benefits include:
- posing with the bike on Instagram,
- impressing your friends at the park or beach,
- using the features of the bike whilst riding it,
- increasing your fitness and health,
- spending more quality time with your new friend who is an avid biker
- and so on.
Capitalism not only took over our working lives, but as we got used to following processes in our spare time, it was an easy step to apply the same calculatory methods that were needed for managing production to managing consumption. How many of us, through social media, has purposefully fiddled with turning ourselves into a brand? How many of us labor, in our “time off” to monetize our social media accounts?
This transference of utility from commodity to consumer behavior first happens through advertising. Today planning committees can consider both the supply side (negotium) and the demand side (otium), resulting in a loss of the otium type activities which is to develop the deindividualized desires that are non-negotium in nature. I am not saying there is no otium today, just that we are often no longer spending our free-time creating activities with others (and building communities and networks) but instead, following the planned activities that companies lay before us, building networks on their platforms and adding value to their business activities, which are our leisure activities.
Incidentally, this kind of societal management was in a large part Noam Chomsky’s complaint in Manufacturing Consent.
For Stiegler, this management of both supply and demand sides of the economy meant the elimination of real leisure time, and the economic regulation of human life energy both in work and in leisure. As noted by Simondon, the regulation of human behavior as a process of techne means that workers and consumers both become divorced from their own deindividual interests. Humans literally become functionaries of the utility they buy into.
This economic control of human life energy results in symbolic misery, further explained in the last section of this essay.
For this section, we now look at two kinds control enabled by current information technology. The first is digital labor. The second is consumer tracking. Both are related to current information technologies.
1.1 Digital labor
Digital labor refers to the unpaid work people do on social media and the Web 2.0 perform.
Digital labor may sound silly, as we are choosing to do it in our spare time but the market digital labor has created is a boon for the United States economy. The linked document above states that 5,744,481 jobs have been created through the app economy alone. It’s hard to say how the digital economy is worth, let alone how much of that value belongs to which country. But from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s 2019 Digital economy report, the United States has 68% of the market capitalization value of the world’s 70 largest digital platforms.
Today the United States leads the world not only in the financial, military, and cultural areas (in the Hollywood sense) but also in the Silicon Valley sense.
Web 2.0 really emerged as a force when Google took its stock public in 2004. Google’s ability to track people, talked about in the next sub-section, really underscored the value of links. Google’s IPO at $23 billion underscored the public’s trust that this business model was worth something.
Google’s main insight is the realization that access between web sites and users is valuable. By extracting this kind of data through internet communications, Google created an online ecology for the indexing of sites. This indexing activity (e.g. through Google Analytics) soon gave way to a more generalized tracking; that of the social relationships of people themselves. Web 2.0 platforms enable people to offer service or custom content in exchange for monetizing access. Some examples include
- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn: access to people or companies, groups
- Steam, PlayStation, Wii: access to other gamers, so you can play with others online; and access to games for purchase
- Google: access to companies, information, products
- MySpace: access to bands
- YouTube: access to videos
- Instagram: access to mobile videos, images
- TikTok: access to usually highly mimetic videos
When it comes to platforms like OnlyFans, AirBnB, Uber, and Grubhub, we are literally spending our money to make the platform money, while digital laborers would be the service providers, or renters.
There is also the kind of platform where the user is the “digital laborer”, as with Steam, Noom, NetFlix or Strava. Here, the user pays money for some kind of service which promises a kind of benefit. Some examples include
- Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify offer entertainment.
- Curiosity Stream, Brilliant, and Nebula offer entertainment and/or education.
- Noom, Waking Up, and Strava, offer health.
This infrastructure for digital labor (the internet lines, optical cables, data infrastructure, mobile device, and app ecologies) was pretty wide spread priori to COVID-19. Unlike the Spanish flu in 1918, so often cited as an example of an earlier pandemic, during COVID-19 a large portion of the industrialized world had the infrastructure to shut down and social distance.
COVID-19 really only accelerated the disruption of the private/public distinction. Social media and smartphones already let people get used to taking selfies, posting videos, and seeing regular people they didn’t know on-demand through the internet. The ability to have a video and audio interface through a mobile computer through social media platforms, allowed private moments, life events, and public encounters to viewed through the same space, in the same manner.
What is happening today is beyond mimesis, as what is happening is not a just matter of imitation. The people we see online are real people sincerely doing the things they see online. Many videos on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram all require much thought, effort, skill, and creativity. This is an example of negotium interfering with otium. We are choosing to create value for the platforms that we spend our leisure time with instead of using that time to follow our whims (which could include satisfying our deindividual desires according to means like that of the those around us — this is how local color develops).
Digital platforms extract value by monetizing the connections between people. Digital labor is the latest step in how otium is further displaced by negotium .
Our next sub-section, tracking, can be characterized by keeping track of the connection between people and products.
Although many Web 2.0 companies track users (nearly all major companies do), historically, tracking consumers came before digital labor and the internet.
Tracking is the calculation of consumption whereby companies can predict sales and attempting to meet demand. Through Google and computation, tracking data forms the basis for big data and the current data science and A.I. revolution. In a real way, data science and the current A.I. storm was grounded by the business need to manage and recruit more customers.
Earlier forms of user tracking include
- credit card companies collecting and selling consumer data
- rewards cards helping stores collect consumer data
Tracking and consumer data is a big part of how the corporate committee earlier mentioned by Galbraith operates to manage consumer behavior. Tracking is part of the American Corporate wet-dream of controlling both sides of a market.
The invasion of otium by negotium processes is just one way otium has become deformed. Topic of the next section explains another way otium no longer unifies the body politic but instead fragments it.
2 Work and the Self Transcendence
Self transcendence is a matter of identity. This relates directly to otium in that the deindividual desires that are not routinized by negotium’s daily activities, like chores, conducting business, and labor. Otium is the activities we engage in so that we can gain an understanding of our place in the world. Some examples might include
- chatting with friends while working on a project together, or by a camp fire
- activities related to performance (either as an audience member, or as a performing artist — musician, poet, and so on).
- Interfacing with art/craft on one’s own (as with reading, writing, painting, sculpture, woodworking, and so on)
- Hunting, gardening, or spending time in nature alone or with others
- and so on.
Otium can constitute the side of our identity that is personal. You can contrast this with the role work as it pertains to work.
One of the earliest mentions of work and identity comes from the Bible. After all, God cast out Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden because they did not listen to Him.
To Adam He said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, `You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. — Genesis 3 NIV
For disobedience, God condemned humankind and the descendants of Adam to a life of work.
Work is central to all cultures as people must coordinate their labor to be successful in groups. I offer a brief example of this from my own ethnicity, Chinese, to emphasize that part of religion’s role is to provide us the basis for our roles in the society we are in.
When there are duties to perform [true] servants and sons serve their labors. — Confucius
This very Confucian sentiment echoed the hierarchical aesthetic of Confucius’s ideas. Confucius was born in a time of strife. He saw the problem of social unrest as a problem of authority. If people didn’t have a clear place in the social order, then they might fight about who was in charge. Confucius devised a system wherein every person had a rank, from the Son of Heaven (the Emperor) to the most recent newborn of the lowest ranking family. Confucianism has labor baked into place, because one’s role and status in society respectively dictated the type and allocation of labor. If you were a peasant, you had to keep your place and do your farming. If you were the lowest ranking official, you could end up being all your superior’s page.
Work isn’t just your role; work is also how you belong.
From my upbringing I inherited a sense of duty: When it came time to work, I needed to put my head down and focus on a task that was bequeathed to me.
Many groups, especially cultural ones, have their own attitude towards work, from the go-getters to the “take it easy, bro”. Corporations will always form a corporate culture, where certain kinds of tasks are valorized over others. How and what we work at isn’t always what makes us who we are in the group — sometimes our attitude towards work singles where we belong.
In the United States we have many figures that have helped form the American attitude towards work. Ben Franklin, who we think wise, wrote many gems about the nature of labor.
Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today. — Ben Franklin
American businessmen also have much to say about work.
I believe in the dignity of labor, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a living but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living. — J.D. Rockefeller.
Ideals relating to work litter English, which includes some advertising slogans: Labor. Work ethic. American spirit. Built Ford Tough. Toiling. Profession. Living. Industrious. Responsible. We even associate functionality with “working”, implying that those who do not work have no place. Those who don’t work are called slackers, which has a negative connotation. Work comes with a reward, a benefit, a result. When things “work” we keep doing it. When things work, we don’t want to change it. In English the word work is essential to civilization: Great works. The seven wonders of the world. Work is essential to art: Great works of art.
Labor appears essential to human identity, at least from the point of view of American capitalism. What else do humans do if not work? Cats don’t work. Horses, dogs, and oxen can join us in our labor but only if we train them. Naturally, and on their own, animals play. Animals that do labor, not as work animals for humans, but on their own, like beavers or ants, seem almost human-like in their industry. We bestow upon bees a special place for work: busy-bee or busy like a bee, something working humans strive for.
In the current American neo-liberal system, this striving for takes on a different purpose than belonging to the group you live among.
Historically this development traces how Christian religion gave way to American style capitalism. Along the way we will see work and identity form a tighter association.
2.1 From Religious Faith to Capitalist Trust
In terms of deindividual desires, religion operates by focusing life energy. Religion works much like other channels of deindividual desires, by aligning desires so that society can function coherently in a direction towards a collective belief.
To use the example above between Chinese and Christianity, as a contrast, whereas Christianity provided a collective belief towards progress (Heaven), Confucianism after the Tang Dynasty developed a faith towards maintaining social coherency in order to have peace and prosperity. This is one answer as to why Chinese civilization as progressive as it seemed historically, started to stagnate by the time of the Ming Dynasty — the answer for the future lay in the Confucian ideals, which included repetition of the past in the present.
Part of Max Weber’s genius was to note how religion’s channeling of energy with its idea of belief in the future, through the Protestant reformation was redirected into business as trust.
This re-channeling begins with Martin Luther’s complaint about monks. Luther criticized monks for leading an ascetic lifestyle. Luther saw keeping apart from worldly concerns for the purposes of prayer and worship, (otium), as an affront to God as monks selfishly closeted themselves from the world. Luther’s advice was to worship God throughout your daily everyday affairs, not in private.
This complaint coincided historically with spread of the bible by the Gutenberg printing press. Following the words of Martin Luther, Protestants read and interpreted the bible without the mediation of a Priest, applying it as they saw fit, sometimes to business, sometimes to other matters. Slowly the religious energy that was used for self-transcendence and the establishing of symbolic consistence for individuals and society at large was transferred to what was previously thought of as non-religious activities.
This framing of daily activities as religious worship is how Max Weber shows how the Protestant work ethic is essential in capitalism. Stiegler extends this thought further.
Capitalism is therefore before anything else a new state of mind about business, leading to a mutation of the question of belief in the Western process of psycho-social individuation, the conditions of which capitalism defines.
Capitalism takes over the role religion played socially, by absorbing the energy religion had used to organize how humans understood their place in the world. Unlike religion, capitalism directly fans desires of all kinds. Desires include not only greed (see Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good”) but also desires for status, sex, food (to name a few) are swept up/channeled and crafted through consumerism. Who ever desired bubble-gum ice cream before it was created? These new markets extend the limits of capitalist activity.
In turn, these activities acquire a sense of right as we must “Buy American” and otherwise participate in shopping or commerce (recall President George W. Bush’s speech to Americans after 9/11, in which he tells Americans to not be cowed by terrorists, and to continue daily activities, or some American’s sense that they had a freedom not to follow the COVID-19 shutdown ordinance). As philosopher Slavoj Zizek says we live in a kind of ethical hedonism, where we are encouraged to enjoy in our desires but “drink responsibly” (one of his favorite examples is that of caffeine free coffee or sugar free soda, or meatless “meat” — the promise of guilt free consumption). This sense of right and duty is a many-century-mutation of Luther’s preaching for a rejection of otium, with the elevation of negotium.
When the hopes for the future, formerly fostered fostered through otium (as faith for salvation), were transferred to negotium, we have a change in how we understood our negotium future.
Benjamin Franklin, the official printer for the state of Pennsylvania, and whose father was a Calvinist, was for Weber, the ideal type constituting the face of that new spirit that formed as capitalism emerged from its pre-industrial phase. […] The Calvinist heritage consists of the doctrine that believes in the fulfilment of one’s duty through worldly business, and such is already the spirit of the Reformation that, advocating ‘asceticism in the world’, denies in principle all difference between otium and negotium. This is translated by Franklin into the first commandment that time is money — which means first of all that service to God becomes calculable and rational in this sense: one can establish ratios, according to the sense in which accountants use this word.
Belief is transformed into credit obtained through trust insofar as it is itself calculable and measures occupied time (negotium).
This belief in a better future, for capitalism, becomes a belief in credit — that one can make more money in the future to pay for money lent (plus interest) today. Credit is literally borrowing against the future.
More specifically, credit offered to consumers is the formalized faith that financial institutions have that consumer desires are strong (the economy will hold). Franklin, cited by Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, writes
Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to recon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.
Remember that credit is money.
As money allows processes to be accounted for, so time becomes calculable as credit. This ratio of money/time calculation forms the basis for all lending activity, including that of the stock market, mortgages, and bonds and so on. Religious belief in progress becomes capitalist trust when belief in the future is formalized into trust. Stiegler writes
The new question of trust — such that it is no longer simply faith, cultivated and maintained by tradition, but a mutual engagement — a trust in this sense, which results in an ethic, that is, a behavior submitted to rules of which efficacy is calculable, as Franklin’s sermons already indicate, is the result of this ‘new state of mind’: the goal of this new spirit is to engender an absolute trust in the innovations of capitalism, in capitalism as the spirit of innovation.
Our trust in God and our trust in the dollar offer the same functionality for the population as we trust others to perform their allotted capitalist roles. Developers will build the building they were lent the money for. Families will pay back the mortgage they borrowed to buy the house. Governments will function, collect taxes and pay back municipal bonds.
Religious faith in a future of abundance evolves into capitalist trust in a future of abundance and economic growth. This trust is established by American style economic calculation for nearly every aspect of human life, which is treated according to its side role in the market place, as consumer or employer. A concrete example of this is the 1003 Fannie Mae mortgage application. This application collects borrower information so that the underwriter can balance out the labor with the mortgage debt. In California, the main instrument that glues the bank and borrower’s interests with the property is called a Deed of Trust.
As trust is trust in the bank, and trust in the borrower, so established as human participants in the economy are reduced to calculation for the manage of the flow of goods and services ad infinitum.
This promise of an extended future of resource flow is essentially what capitalism offers us, faith in capitalist progress. The main difference between religion and capitalism, however, is that the desired future capitalism offers can radically varies from person to person.
In the United States this elevating of work and labor is central to identity. Establishment of this mutual engagement (trust) is the subject of the next sub-section, which explains how the American economic system arose.
2.2 The Rise of the American System and Return Self Transcendence(…s?)
Before we get to the development of the American economic system, which really got going after World War 2, we need to discuss Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who laid the groundwork for the management of the consumer side of the economy.
Edward Bernays, named by Life Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people, called “the father of public relations”, wrote Propaganda in 1928. Bernays believed that the wealthy, who had control of broadcasting media, have a vested interest in maintaining public good because the public could not lead itself. While this sentiment may have been true when corporations limited to their home nation (see former General Motors President Charles E. Wilson’s statement regarding being the secretary of Defense), that may not be true anymore. Nonetheless, Bernays also believed propaganda was essential to democracy, as a two way communication device. While, the public had to desire to hear the message:
Propaganda is of no use to the politician unless he has something to say which the public, consciously or unconsciously, wants to hear. — Edward Bernays
On the other, a politician needed to use propaganda to lead.
Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government. — Edward Bernays
Applying the same thinking to both advertisement and politics, Bernays used the newfound broadcast technology and print media in conjunction with demographic studies to determine messaging, target demographics. This allowed producers, through advertisers, to dictate/create consumer taste by either aligning their product with deindividual desire, or by capturing that desire with a new product.
Essentially, Bernays laid the technological and methodological groundwork for the modern consumer society, complete with a market for publicity and advertisement agencies to follow in Bernays’ footsteps.
Significantly, Bernays’ methodology offered no great distinction between propaganda, advertisement, or publicity. All three utilized the same technology (broadcast) and the same approach (demographic identification of a target audience, with a psychological profile).
With new media technology developed by Bernays, this fear of the Great Depression enabled the establishment of the current American system as businesses started to try and control the demand side, as well as the supply side.
As World War 2 boosted the United States out of the Great Depression through its industry, so leaders wanted to keep the factories running. But without a war, the United States turned its military industrial complex towards the production of consumer goods. Military and industry invested much to produce foods and other supplies that could be transported long distances, and packaged for individual consumption. Much of the food side of history is told in Twinkie, Deconstructed, as much of the research for ingredients of the Twinkie, from the dye to various chemicals, was developed for war.
To foster a rise in GDP, The United States initiated, in the late 1940s and 1950s, and efforts to its citizenry to move to suburbia with propaganda (and also financial incentives for developers through the Federal Housing Authority). This use of propaganda in part resembles how the United States through media encouraged its population to fight in World War 2.
The idea with suburbia was that the family would live off the farm, so it would have to pay for all its food and products. People could always barter, but if citizens lived closer to factories and cities, they could buy whatever they needed from the department store. To facilitate disposable income, the Department of Agriculture instituted policies that encouraged the closure of family farms while encouraging the formation of corporate farms. Corporate farms offered cheaper food through modern farming technology and management, thereby enabling the average American to spend more income on consumer products. Laborers had be paid well, so they could afford to be consumers.
As an aside, at first, the pay between laborers and CEOs was more equal. But as the economy grew and changed, so a pay disparity comes about.
In another book, The Affluent Society, written in 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith also notes how the public sector starts to garnish wealth disproportionately with the private sector. Peter Drucker in The Effective Executive, notes how a gap in salaries between the top and bottom of corporation hierarchy appeared in the late 20th century.
Eventually boom of the 1950s would change as the market became saturated with products. Nonetheless, advertisement changed its approach to sell more products.
To foster continued spending, the propaganda methods of Bernays were employed. The population was split into targeted demographics that were then intensely advertised to through broadcast media.
The consumer focus on functionality was instrumental here, as industry eventually hit on planned obsolescence. One form of this was instituted earlier in the 1920s “getting the newest model”. Utilizing this method of making obsolete last year’s model, the two American car companies, Ford and General Motors was able to sell the population that the newest models had better utility, where flashier and therefore commanded a higher price than last year’s model.
This resembles Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism, but develops the idea further. Commodity fetishism is the consumer’s perception of the value of a product through the item itself, instead of its value coming through its relationship with labor and production.
Through lifestyle imagery and product placement, American companies created branding as associated items are intrinsically more valuable for how they make the consumer appear. Some lifestyle magazines include Home and Garden and Playboy. In particular, Playboy’s articles on good cooking, Hi-Fi Stereos, flashy cars, and mansions were part of Playboy’s use of sex to connect would-be playboys with advertisers, to drum up sales to young men. In this sense, we can draw a line between Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and Instagram, as Playboy features his lifestyle/brand the way Instagram does for many influencers.
Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s book Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America explores this connection between Playboy magazine, product placement, and lifestyle branding.
What lifestyle does is that it captures deindividual desires with the promise of a better future. For example, Apple’s image of a futuristic lifestyle, with all white-design is one such example of lifestyle imagery. It’s successful. Apple captures some deindividualized desires, with the effect that some people are willing to pay more just to own Apple products.
In this manner, we are not speaking of the loss of otium, as in the first section, but of a displacement of the expression of deindividual desires towards hyperreal imagery.
Hyperreality, coined in Simulation and Simulacra by Jean Baudrillard, is a condition whereby media simulation is divorced from reference. Hyperreality occurs when information and material technology has advanced to the point where humans can produce reproductions of events that did not occur. In this sense, hyperreality is a kind of psychotechnology.
I write about this topic here, where I advocate that knowledge in the era of fake news requires digital literacy in order to not be blinded by how media tropes can skew meaning through presentation. That essay is kind of a precursor to this one.
Through the manipulation of information technology, companies like Apple can establish the sleek association of Apple with the deindividual desires of a better future. Take a look at the following advertisement (as an example, not an endorsement):
Hyperreal images colonize our deindividual desires by manufacturing events, what Stiegler calls singularities, what Deleuze calls quasi-events, or what Jean Baudrillard calls simulation.
As mentioned before, religion offers a shared future to its participants. For Christianity this is heaven. For Buddhists this is nirvana. A shared future requires that we have compatible same values, attitudes, and desires. Pursuit of these aligned deindividual desires leads one to self transcend, one expression of which is aligning with the crowd and being a people.
Where hyperreality helps further fragment the body politic is in how our entertainment, advertisement, and political campaigning all seek different, personal configurations of deindividual desires in order for us to self transcend. There may still be alignment with others, through fan clubs, sports team enthusiasts or partisan politics, but there is no way the body politic as a whole can maintain alignment. Different demographics will have different configurations.
Capitalism, and in particular Hollywood, has utilized electronic media to produce entertainment that we can identify with. Following the footsteps of Bernays, media utilizes much the same tropes to construct particular kinds of meanings for events. (For instance, see film director Leni Reifenstahl’s impact on films from her Nazi propaganda.)
While not always meant as propaganda, those tropes form the language of capturing and channeling deindividualized desires. As such tropes are utilized extensively throughout Hollywood it is no surprise that people identify with Star Wars, anime, Star Trek, and all other manner of sitcom and fictitious character. We love our TV shows. Our ability to identify and find alignment with characters lets us find the simulation of the American dad in characters as diverse as Homer Simpson, Stan Smith, Al Bundy, Rick Sanchez, and Jerry Smith, to name a few. We can also love the antics of terrible people, people we might not enjoy interacting with in real life, as with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or House. With the advent of information technology, we can Netflix and chill as much as we want and get lost in worlds created for our entertainment (also created for the advertisements, or to capture the fee of the streaming or gaming platform). Anyone who has been to comic-con, anime-con, grew up watching Saturday Morning cartoons, played Nintendo, or been addicted to a TV show like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter can understand the intense emotional investment that can come with made-up universes. The popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe can attest to the amount of excitement and sense of self-renewal that can from such shows.
Self transcendence isn’t just found in our entertainment, and our advertisement, however. As the media tropes belong to the media technology’s form of presentation, so self-transcendence can be offered through political propaganda.
Media tropes work regardless of the meaning of the content they present.
An example of self transcendence in politics is Captain America. While Captain America today is known as a figure for entertainment, Captain America was introduced first by Marvel Comics as part of an effort to raise war bonds to fight on the side of the Allies during World War 2.
And of course there is innumerable cross-over as characters can become associated with products, with celebrities, with lifestyle brands, or political positions.
Today, American identity and media are entangled. Baudrillard elaborates on the central role hyperreality plays as the deindividual desires of the masses are entangled with their media products.
the media are products not of socialization, but of exactly the opposite, of the implosion of the social in the masses. […] This implosion should be analyzed according to McLuhan’s formula, the medium is the message […]. Only the medium can make an event — whatever the contents, whether they are conformist or subversive. […] Beyond this neutralization of all content, one could still expect to manipulate the medium in its form and to transform the real by using the impact of medium as form. If all the content is wiped out, there is perhaps still a subversive, revolutionary use value of the medium as such.
This development of media coincides with the development of media tropes, in more and more accelerated and advanced forms. TV Shows like Community, Future Man, and 30 Rock all play with media tropes. As audiences are media literate, so these shows can play the tropes against each other to foster entertainment and emotional expression that we can all find alignment with.
Strong alignment of deindividual desires is self transcendence, as we can cry with the show, fall in love with the characters, or otherwise be enraptured, finding our place in the universe through the expression of these tropes.
Information and media technology work as a psychotechnology. The use of various forms of expression, presentation, and framing in media alters attitudes, expectations, and mental processes people have about themselves and the world.
Put in terms of relevancy, the current use of media psychotechnology doesn’t push us to find relevancy in the world around us, or develop ourselves in the communities we find ourselves in, but rather, this media psychotechnology is getting us to be invested in hyperrealities themselves, which may or may not have relevancy at any given moment.
- Should that hyperreality presentation be a tv show, then we may have invested into a fictitious world.
- Should that hyperreality presentation be propaganda, then we may have invested into larger political movements for ends that may or may not serve our personal interests.
- Should that hyperreal presentation be advertisement, then we may be inspired to open our wallets and purchase that product.
Regardless of semantic content, hyperreality is a function of the media technology itself, an establishment of the form of expression (trope) as carrying information to direct our emotions, much like the soundtrack of a horror movie telling us when to be afraid.
Marshall McLuhan’s work returns to mind, as his “global village” has grown immensely. McLuhan’s work acknowledges how media is a psychotechnology, as it changes the social relationships of those around us, and with it, our expectations, and our sense of who we are.
“We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us” — Marshall McLuhan
While McLuhan was active in the 60s and 70s, so he did not witness the current turn of events in the 21st century, starting with our political turmoil. As Marx missed the way in which technology can also proletariatize consumers by alienating them with routines that colonize their sense of purpose and belonging, so McLuhan and Baudrillard both miss roles of media and consumer items in reforming the population. America has changed from the primary form of belonging as citizenship in a body politic to “consumer-ship”, where the primary form of belonging entailed participation in the “body economic”.
I will now end this section with a recap from Stiegler, as he sums these ideas nicely. While Stiegler does not use the term psychotechnology, what I am referring as media technology, he calls mnemo-technology. While we emphasize different aspects, given how we name this technology, we are referring to the same apparatuses playing the same functions.
Through the industrial expropriation of mnemo-technologies, that is, through retentional systems that are technical supports required by all psychic and collective individuation, the twentieth century optimized the conditions of production and consumption by linking them tightly together. This was achieved by controlling the time devoted both to work and to non-work, through the deployment of calculation and information technologies in order to control production and investment, and through communication technologies used to control consumption and social behaviors, including political behavior. These two spheres are today integrated and constitute a form of global control, within which existence is totally submitted to models of consumption, themselves totally conforming to the necessities production, that is, of subsistence, of negotium.
As our economic system has spread throughout the world, colonizing both work (negotium) and leisure (otium) via media pscyhotechnologies, so the world faces the same symbolic crisis.
In our last section we will explore how capitalism relates to politics, through the mediation of work.
3 Which comes first: Politics or Work?
Although not mentioned too often, politics figures strongly in this essay. Our deindividual desires constitute the means by which we form alignment with others. While religion can offer this basis through the shared vision of a future, so politics can do the same thing when the people, or demos (from Greek) self identify as such. Politics is always about the future. Stiegler writes
In the sixth century BCE, Cleisthenes […] constituted the demos in law — created the demes in order to break down the tribes and the clans of archaic Greece (in 508 BCE) […].
The purpose of breaking down the tribes was to form the demos which is the identity of the common people. With nationalism, many nations formed based on competing ideas as to who should constitute the people (and how borders should be drawn). In fact, the era between World War I and World War II was extremely tumultuous simply because the people’s of many nations could not decide what kind of character their nation should have. The genocides of Armenians and Jews both occurred for the same kind of reason: some people decided they wanted to be “pure”, exclusive of some group who otherwise had been living among them for centuries.
The United States is different. Through language, with the Declaration of Independence, the United States declared itself a people. Likewise, the United States regulated itself into law, with the Constitution. This nation was found on a model that clearly
poses in principle, a difference between right and fact. This model is maintained in spite of all the transformations characterizing the history of the Western European process of individuation, up until the end of the nineteenth century. Today, however the adoptive process implemented by the United States is no longer democratic in this sense: it is consumerist.
By formulating the American economic system of present day, which has spread throughout the globe, influencing even self identified communist nations like China, what has occurred, to paraphrase Stiegler:
Demo-cracy has been replaced with demo-graphics.
In some sense, we have been building up to this point, so that we can make sense of the sentence above. The implications of this point will constitute the rest of this essay.
3.1 The Loss of the Future
As the American system of consumption, finance, and business has spread throughout the planet, today we are entangled in a global logistical chain whereby nations find themselves in greater and greater co-dependency.
Our radical connectivity means that local events effecting foreigner workers have direct consequences for businesses here, often affecting our own livelihood and our access to products.
For an elaboration on how we are economically entangled in the world, watch Wendover Production’s video on how COVID-19 is the fly that broke the back of current on-demand logistics.
This connection of a globally network of labor has a direct consequence on politics.
While we have examined the American economic system, we have not focused on how this system is failing to provide the future as promised by the myth of “if you work then you get capitalist abundance”.
As a baseline, let’s start with a brief comparison of American businesses and income disparity in the 1950s before moving onto today.
In the 1950s, the sphere of the nation was still large enough to contain corporations. There were no multinational corporations, so corporations took more care with their home nation and with it, the citizen-worker-consumers that lived in that nation.
Recall G.E. President Charles E. Wilson’s statement to congress:
Senator Hendrickson. Well now, I am interested to know whether if a situation did arise where you had to make a decision which was extremely adverse to the interests of your stock and General Motors Corp. or any of these other companies, or extremely adverse to the company, in the interests of the United States Government, could you make that decision?
Mr. Wilson. Yes, sir; I could. I cannot conceive of one because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. The difference did not exist. Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country. Our contribution to the Nation is quite considerable. (p. 26)
The statement above, given in good faith (Wilson did become Defense Secretary), comes at a time when wages for workers and management were much closer, known as a time of The Great Compression, which only lasted until the late 1960s.
During the later part of The Great Compression, the American system has largely been successful, at least when looking at averages.
Things have now changed. Today there exist multinational corporations. Global capitalism means that multi-national corporations can have obligations beyond the interests of their “home” nations. Some examples include Microsoft’s privacy concerns for EU citizens given FBI warrants and James Stewart’s The Partners, which explores how lawyers for large companies must balance their client’s interests against complying with various government’s regulations (such as President Jimmy Carter’s freeze of Iran’s assets during the Iran hostage crisis).
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in their book Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, explore the consequences of the global neo-liberal American system. The borders of nations have also become porous as global trade tightens relationships between international cities. These cities then begin to create a multi-national culture resembling each other, whereas regional cities that are landlocked retain local color. This formation of a global worldview further fragments nations further disrupting national identities.
Along with demographic fragmentation, social media has enabled people, such as those who are retain a regional identity (in opposition to the multi-national one) to identify in new ways. These identities, like veganism and transgenderism, have often been overlooked by mainstream media. Some additional new identities include partisan political clusters (like gab.com).
While we have looked at social media and the spread of the internet and mobile/app ecology as part of America’s soft power, social media impacts other countries looking to preserve their party interests.
For instance, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has fully embracing social media’s ability to influence the population. Historically, the CCP monitored dissent, resorting to censorship, arrests, and even disappearances to keep their populations’ deindividual desires aligned with the goals of the CCP. While the CCP, no doubt, is able to regulate its state, broadcast and cinematic production effectively, doing the same in social media and online forums is difficult.
Chinese youths, through the internet, realized that the decades of the CCP’s population birth restrictions have led to the current situation where most of the population is aging and in need of support. While the CCP’s embrace of technology during Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s time helped China grow its economy drastically, the abundance and access to resources of that growth may come to an end. When economic times are good, people will have faith in the future. When economic times are bad, people will come to have less faith in the future, and in their political reality. With an aging population, the thought is that resources will be devoted to caring for the elderly. Likewise, real estate properties in urban China are so high as to be out of reach of the middle class. A young person can work very hard and never afford a home.
A recent article from the Taipei Times offers this startling article:
The phrase “lying flat” has become popular among young Chinese. Rather than toil away at a job that offers limited possibilities for promotion or prosperity, it is better to take it easy and live a more frugal life, free from the daily grind.
Due to soaring property and commodity prices, many young Chinese no longer believe that working a “966” job — working from 9am to 6pm, six days a week — will be repaid with career advancement and affluence.
Consequently, many young Chinese are refusing to function as money-making machines for their bosses. They no longer chase after salary increases, have no interest in purchasing property and have stopped acquiring consumer goods. Instead, they advocate a minimalist lifestyle, spurning marriage and living for themselves.
If “lying flat” is interpreted to mean “low desire,” then perhaps it is more than just a passive movement and is also a silent protest aimed at a plethora of societal problems, including increased wealth disparity, unequal distribution of resources and a feeling that no matter how hard one works, one never obtains a corresponding reward.
The “lying flat” phenomenon has caught the attention of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials — and they appear worried. This is because the prospect of economic growth is what props up the party’s rule.
This recognition, that the promise of growth and a future is what drives people forward can be seen here in the United States. While the CCP has a different attitude towards managing public perception, in the United States, we have our own political promises.
When politicians want to get elected, they promise things like jobs, and higher wages, or no taxes.
As mentioned before, politics has a very tight relationship with the future. In our capitalist way of life, work means getting our reward. While rewards in the future may be tied to Christianity, this is not always the case for all forms of human cultural organization.
You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.
Perform every action with you heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits. Be even-tempered in success and failure: for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by yoga.
Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender. Seek refuge in the knowledge of Brahma. They who work selfishly for results are miserable.
Work without reward goes against American capitalist aesthetics. Reward is essential to the American worker. With American capitalism, the consumer is separated from the farm, supported by her labor through the marketplace. With this labor, she buys commodities (clothes, food) also through the marketplace. A consumer in the American model of capitalism needs rewards, because without rewards she could not survive.
In 2016, much discontent arose when the American body politic noticed a disparity between how different generations were able to accumulate wealth. While Trump did not fair as well with the poor as Clinton in 2016, Trump did better than past Republicans. From the article linked above, Stop Blaming Low-Income Voters for Donald Trump’s Victory:
Trump improved upon Mitt Romney’s margin with voters making under $30,000 a year by 16 points. But he still lost them — by 12 whole points.
American politics is also about a better future (of which politicians are supposed to be responsible for). While capitalist ideals have largely replaced religious ideals for the future, the desire for a good future remains (even if today it’s a future of consumer lifestyle).
At the start of the American economic system, post World War 2, there was an intense period where the body politic of the young, expressed a desire for a future on their own terms. The counter-culture movement of the 1960s and 1970s was born of deindividual desires to find new modes of existence, for a better future. While the counter-culture movement was not explicitly religious, it did have a quasi-religious tone through New Age symbolism. The height of the counter-culture coincides with the darkness of Vietnam, the social unrest surrounding various Civil Rights movements, and contemporaneous economic turmoil. The current events of the 1970s discouraged the counter-culture movement, providing its death knell as members of that movement ended up joining the ranks of the working class in the 1980s to participate in consumer-driven-economics.
Today a large part of our malaise comes from the discontented sense that we are running in place, that the world is one gigantic hamster wheel of endless work weeks punctuated by social, political and cultural turmoil without purpose. This discontentment with work can be expressed thusly, from this article, Why 85% of People Hate their Jobs:
A global poll conducted by Gallup has uncovered that out of the world’s one billion full-time workers, only 15% of people are engaged at work. That means that an astronomical 85% of people are unhappy in their jobs.
Our discontent with work comes from a sense that we are working to make the wealthy wealthier with no increase in the access to resources.
To some degree, this malaise has become political infighting as in the United States, different partisan groups blame various other groups for blocking economic well-being. Wealth disparity can be expressed:
- through gender discrimination
- welfare drains on the economy (from immigrants, black single mothers on crack)
- through government inefficiency
I am not endorsing any of the links above, I’m citing them as examples of political infighting in the United States. While people may not agree on the cause of the this disparity, it has certainly been felt generationally, as Millennials both constitute the largest working force and yet has the least amount of wealth.
Although the American economic system since its inception has wildly been successfully, there remains no agreed upon solution for how to solve the problems it has.
If the only promise of a future is an abundance of resources then the body politic will experience economic stresses as a direct challenge to their sense of having any future.
Working without a future feels like work with no reward. The promise of the golden years — the years of comfortable retirement at the twilight of one’s working life has changed as Americans tend to retire later, often due to financial concerns. Younger workers, like Millennials, without retirement from established workers, may not have room to climb the corporate ladder. Additionally, they suspect that they will have to retiring much later all the while carrying crippling debt. This means they would need to work longer, and retire with a part time job.
All of these concerns contribute to the sense that the world is slowly decaying, as the promised future from the 1950s (flying cars, luxurious robot servants, powerful space travel) has not come to fruition. Instead, we face the consequences of our actions, without a clear vision of the future. As the fragmented body has different visions, as a whole there is no agreement on what really matters, or even what is real.
The future does come as that is how time works. To expect to spontaneously reach a specifically desired future is foolish. Our best chance at finding a specifically desired future is if we all want compatible things and then cooperate to create opportunities for that future to occur.
As COVID-19 has increased talk about an apocalypse, much of our entertainment has been expressing a collective fear of the end, with no final utopic reward in sight.
In the meantime, with no clear and desirable future in sight, the American economic system will require the body politic to continue to work, as we need to pay rent/mortgages, buy food, and necessities. We will continue to maintain our lifestyles through associated commodities (often called household necessities), otherwise we might feel like a failure (as that is one of the fears of not reaching some threshold for achieving a certain kind of lifestyle — such as having a dirty kitchen). We will run our individual hamster wheels while our shared future remains uncertain because there is no one left to care for it.
In this last subsection I will conclude with an exploration recapping this entire essay.
3.2 Freedom for the Future
The failure of American capitalism is a complex social and political question. There are many aspects of American capitalism which have proved successful (since as increasing the standard of living). The single biggest failure, in my opinion, is the failure for the body politic to provide itself a coherent future. Instead, self transcendence has been promised individually through the commodification of identity (through branding and lifestyle defined desires) and the distraction of fictitious polis (like Star Wars, or soap operas like Days of our Lives). These distractions dispel the very real energy people invest into the future by sinking that energy into fictions that are created for entertainment and profit.
One possible reading of this essay might be to consider that the problem is media.
After all, hyperreal media has been used to both sell commodities (making the demos in democracy into demographics) and to exhaust deindividual desires with fictitious investments, and political propaganda.
However, the issue with considering media as the culprit is as follows.
Following Bernays’ quotes above, a population that does not already believe cannot be made to believe simply through messaging.
This insight is verified. As recently as last month in July 2021, a new study in the journal Nature Communications shows that influencers can only be popular as long as they display deindividual desires that are in alignment with their followers. A famous person cannot use social media to change the minds of people who already disagree. After all, considering that vast amount of media out there, you might think that if the right combination of media tropes existed to hook such political desire, then it should have already gone viral.
This is reflected in the tactics of current politicians. Politicians do not generally not seek to change the minds of members of opposing parties but instead seek to rally their own supporters whilst fighting for the hearts and minds of the undecided.
This targeting of audiences through demographics is exactly what Stiegler was saying. While American politicians talk about the will of the people, other than the regulatory nominalizations of “Americans” and “United States”, there is no demos — the people — anymore, as “the people” are largely fixed in their incompatible preferences. Instead there is only demographics as politicians fight for small segments of groups of key voters.
Political messaging through hyperreality further fragmentation of the body politic occurs as politics uses the same technology as entertainment and advertising. (Entertainment and advertising also employ the same kind of demographic targeting.)
One example of the crossover of media tropes is between Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report introducing truthiness as a kind of ideological fetishism with Donald Trump’s Presidency, introducing alt-facts to both accuse others of ideological leaning whilst denying that one has any leaning. The former used news tropes to satirize politicians and journalists whereas the latter used his experience as a public figure to manipulate media perception and gain power. Mixing tropes in this manner fragments the body politic because various deindividual desires are aligned in divergent manners, often about the acceptability other types of people. This divergence does not enable the body politic to reunify easily, as various groups can become alienated from each other, with no real sense as to what other groups may stand for, or be concerned about.
Yet while media creates these diverse alignments, media cannot easily undo them, because people have grown up in these divergent ways. Returning to politics, the result of this political fragmentation is conditional.
- If people’s deindividual desires do not align with the politician’s message, then they can view that politician with cynicism, as his use of media is apparent.
On the other hand,
- if people’s deindividual desires do align with the politician’s message, then they may view that politician with idealism, as his message appears meaningful and relevant.
In a fragmented political body, messaging will not impact everyone the same way. The fragmentation of our political body experienced in 2016 and today is the result of this unevenly received messaging. This fragmentary and incoherent response from the body politic is in large part why people are slowly becoming cynical about the political process, even if they still believe in some ideals.
Rather, as Stiegler offers, our condition is much worse than merely a matter of taking television or social media too seriously or not taking politics seriously enough. Rather, we should consider the entire economy as a whole, that is, the methods by which planning manages both sides of supply and demand. How demand is processed is directly tied to how supply is processed. Especially with digital laborers who are not employees, businesses must create processes clear enough so that transactions are made.
Where this is problematic is that such regulated, rational consideration of processes means that we spend our time as consumers and producers, following the same processes instead of engaging with the changing world around us.
The same systems thinking that engineers used to create products (their work) are now used to hook and manage consumer experience (our following their design — such as with video games or Apple’s hyperreal lifestyle brand).
Proletariatization requires seeing the worker and consumer trapped in techne, set processes to achieve limited goals. To see how following a designated routine is as a labor (paid or in leisure) means that we work for our entertainment/consumer items as much as we work for our bosses.
While in comparison to other economic and political arrangements, our current situation may not be so undesirable, there is always room for improvement:
The problem at hand is with American style capitalism is that it has failed to create new modes of existence.
Previous modes (other kinds of economies) have been disrupted by American capitalism. Actual trust has been replaced with trust qua calculation, as people and institutions trust that we will participate in the economy in standard, measurable ways.
By justifying our choices and behavior through these stats driven rationalities, we have destroyed the symbolic consistence necessary for a population to become a people. Without the social coherency of being a people, we cannot strive towards a shared future.
Symbolic consistence is a way of specifying how deindividual desires are aligned under the signification of symbols, characters, ideas, and other communicative units.
Proletariatization destroys the body politic’s symbolic consistence because proletariats are alienated from their surrounds, being colonized by the techne that drives them.
Symbolic consistence is not something much talked about yet, so we shall do so here as it directly ties with work and the future. Stiegler writes
[I]t is not only God who, though not existing, consists. It is also art, justice, ideas in general. Justice certainly does not exist on Earth and will never exist. Who, however, would dare suggest that this idea does not consist, and does not merit being maintained, and even cultivated in young souls, whom one raises on this basis, precisely because justice does not exist? Who would dare maintain that because, in fact, justice does not exist, we should therefore renounce the desire for justice? Ideas in general, and not only the idea of justice, whatever these ideas be, do not exist: they are only made to consist.
In our everyday lives we seek balance. But in the American economic system, such balance is often legislated through some kind of monetary exchange. Justice can be served in a court of law through fines — calculated ratios/damages established by trust in business practices are used to project a baseline for those damages. Our sense of symbolic consistence is challenged when we insist that only rational calculation, a techne of capitalism, is the process to make decisions. Since the values for those calculations can be very different from person to person, we do not have enough common deindividual desire to form a demos.
Yet symbolic consistence is not something special to politics and the future, suggesting that forming a demos out of the American capitalist system may yet be a possibility.
When looking at various fictions posed in hyperreality, it is clear that many of these fictions are maintained through symbolic consistence. There are innumerable channels on YouTube and social media dedicated to upholding the aura of consistence necessary for something like Star Wars or Star Trek to appear to be real (two respective examples are here and here). People maintain these fictions, and enjoy watching these explainer videos about the details of these universes precisely because these fragile fictions need symbolic consistence upheld for people to enjoy them as immersive worlds.
Like the flower children of the 1960s, our deindividual desires want a future we can belong to. Inspiration of that desire is what makes powerful of politicians (and dictators) so dangerous. Apparently if we can’t have a future in our lived experience, we will resort to imaginary universes.
But if we can have a future, then people will build them,. Should we be invested into even imaginary universes, we may try to bring elements of them to life, as with these engineers who build a light saber.
In this sense, hyperreality is not nonsense. Hyperreality is a real repository of our deindividual desires (even if they are largely colonized by materials made solely for economic gain). Hyperreality has the potential to be create/present new futures, as we project through our deindividual desires through hyperreal materiality.
In an aforementioned article above about networks, one of the authors, Douglas Guilbeault in a more accessible form of the article states:
In a sense, we found that the center of the network changed depending on what was spreading. The more uncertain people were about a new idea, the more that social influence moved to the people who only had parochial connections, rather than people with many far-reaching social connections. [T]he people in the edges of the network suddenly had the greatest influence across the entire community.
In this sense, going viral depends largely on something other than the content, as the force of deindividual desires will select for novel connections when these desires change.
Likewise, politicians, as members of the network do not consistently drive the deindividual forces; rather long term politicians are notoriously fickle because they surf the changing tides of deindividual forces to be politicians.
As we see directly with the huge number of FaceBook groups, deindividual desires can lock onto any semantic content, even if it does not lock onto every semantic content. As Bill and Ted (along with their audience) discovered during their excellent time travel adventures, you can create a polis around nearly anything, as long as people can be sincere enough to find alignment with each other to create a desired place in the body politic.
Thus, while we can form groups around anything (video games, movies, songs, to name a few things), fictions cannot easily become the future vision for people, precisely because they require much effort to be brought into materiality.
Likewise, lifestyle campaigns cannot offer us the future we want, because the lifestyle products only have the perception of inherent value. They are set images, not participatory practices that necessarily address the full gambit of human desire.
The actual future we face, the one we share via the arrow of time, is both indeterminate and unexplored. We are free to find our future; the mythology that places us in the universe and tells us what we are about. Indeterminacy is uncomfortable as indeterminacy problematizes our calculatory methods, which are meant to yield clear and rationally known outcomes. Consider with Stiegler for a moment that
A thought only has meaning if it has the force of reopening the indetermination of a future. But it can only be a matter of new ways of life if those lives are constituted by new modes of existence: human life is an existence. Now, our current situation is characterized by the fact that this fails to occur, and that, in place of these new modes of existence, there is substituted an adaptive process of survival, in which possibilities for existing disappear, being reduced instead to simple modalities of subsistence. This is what I have called symbolic misery.
The establishment of fact and right, which is the realism of politics, will only come about once two events happen:
- The body politic emerges and people’s deindividual desires find coherency with each other. At that point, the basis for a shared future can emerge once a direction is adopted by enough participants.
- We stop allowing our personal energy to be so totally absorbed into the economic planning apparatuses structuring how we spend our non-negotium.
We’ve already spoken about the first point above. The second point requires engaging in what Deleuze calls worthy encounters, where we step out of our thoughtless routines and instead engage with the world on its terms with the full force of “a People-Yet-to-Come”. A worthy encounter is the intersection of our deindividual desires with the world. This will force a renewal of thought from which we can begin to recreate ourselves and the world, as a kind of entanglement described by Karen Barad’s agential realism. This kind of play is exactly the first meaning of “(re)creation”— a renewal of us with the world. From such an event both people and world would emerge, as the establishment of fact and right would establish new boundaries for what we consider “how things are”.
Future uncertainty, if we embrace it, would allow us to create the meaning from our thinking, feeling and experiencing. Without this will to create meaning, from the freshness of experience, indeterminacy and uncertainty will appear with a kind of nihilism, the void which only appears once we lose the will to believe/strive for a future at all.
As an aside, Stiegler compares this nihilism to Nietzsche’s Last Man as the type of person who stands for nothing, but thinks they have the answers as small pleasures. The root of this loss of will is due to how the Last Man has forgotten how to have goals that mean something. From Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
And thus spoke Zarathustra to the people: “It is time that mankind set themselves a goal. It is time that mankind plant the seed of their highest hope. Their soil is still rich enough for this. But one day this soil will be poor and tame, and no tall tree will be able to grow from it anymore. Beware! The time approaches when human beings no longer launch the arrow of their longing beyond the human, and the string of their bow will have forgotten how to whir!
This problem of no-future is echoed by Charlie Sheen in the movie Office Space. The monotone environment emphasizes the ever-lengthened present punctuated only by management who treats Sheen like a robot, loading him with processes that dehumanize him.
The breakthrough happens when he alters his life in a way that fits who he has become. Framing this movie with this essay, we can draw two takeaways:
- Do not let your work stifle who you could become, instead let yourself grow through your work and the encounters you have with others.
- Do not let your lifestyle/leisure/entertainment limit who you could be, instead be enchanted by how things are.
These points double in the same vein as Vervaeke’s work, as a search for an answer to the meaning crisis leads to transcendence. After all, changing who we are will also change the world, and how we work and play in the world.
What makes Nietzsche so relevant here is Nietzsche understood that a future can only come about through a mythology. So, he tried to create such a mythology, first finding it Wagner, and then later writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Interestingly, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is the name of a tone poem written by composer Richard Strauss, who was inspired by Nietzsche’s book of the same title. This poem was used as the opening in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The video below describes why this movie is so great very convincingly, so I’d recommend watching the video.
The narrator is hits upon the same theme Nietzsche, which is the same auxiliary topic in this essay, which is the same theme of the movie: the need for a mythology to lead us into a transcendent future, where our work(s) means something.
Just doing work, performing processes and making sure all the ledgers are balanced isn’t going to magically bring us about a better future.
Initially, this appears to be a chicken and egg problem. Do we start with changing our work? Or do we start by changing consumption? The American economic system seems unstoppable. How can we escape techne? People must make money to be able to survive. What else can we do but take joy in our small pleasures?
We are Nietzsche’s Last Man. The transformation of the American citizen, as a political beast, into a consumer, as an economic sinkhole of needs is draining us of our sense of well being. Yet, we can consider that if we put our energy towards something that improves the world instead of trying to find clever new ways to make money, what might be accomplish?
This question is what separates us from animals, not our labor. We have the ability to self transcend, to exceed the limits of who we are. We have the ability to work in different capacities, not just to build a dam or burrow a nest.
If you’ve made it this far, I am sure each of us can John Lennon an imaginary future.
The problem is while a mythology can be imaginary, a future cannot. A future is made of real encounters with the world, and other people. A real future is not the product of one imagination, but that of the efforts of innumerable people. The real chicken and egg problem is that no one person can solve how we can all self transcend together for to to solve this problem, we first must want to do it. Only then do we have a chance to try to do it.
To borrow the quote from the video above,
But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses. — Robert Ardrey
After all, we’ve transcended our circumstances before, so there is no reason we can’t do it again. Right now, is a transitional phase, where we’ve accomplished so much, without knowing what it all means.
All I know is, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.
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