People say that the kids these days are whiny, little twerps.  They have been spoiled, they say, by their parents, and led to believe that they should live in a world where everything is handed to them without work, where there is no danger of bodily harm, where they never need to worry about being offended by how others talk or what they say.  The argument runs that a million tiny cuts by poor parenting and bad policies led to the creation of these delicate little snowflakes:  an obsession with safety that advises parents to wrap their children in bubble wrap.  Sports where all participants receive a trophy and they only play to a tie.  An educational system that allows students to take tests over and over again until they get a passing grade.  Homes where children never have to do any chores and where they are never disciplined.  And all the rest.

Perhaps all of this is true.  I don’t think so, as I work with the “kids these days” and find them pretty impressive.  What if, instead, we were to interpret these phenomena and practices not in moralistic terms, but symptomatically as expressions of a sort of dreamwork as described by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams?  What if we were to interpret the obsession with safety and things like sports teams that play to a tie as a series of displacements and condensations, metonymys and metaphors, referring to a fundamentally different desire and unconscious awareness of circumstances?  The world that parents and children have inherited is one of fundamental precarity and the absence of opportunity.  It is a world where those that came before us on both the “left” and the right, deregulated every aspect of institutions that make social life possible, bringing about the disappearance of jobs, worker representation, the realistic possibility of retirement as a result of getting rid of pensions and replacing them with poor investment plans, and all the rest.  They created a world that funneled money to the top 1% on the backs of everyone else, creating the largest wealth disparity in nearly a century.  They created a world in which people are drowning in both college and credit debt, not because people or irresponsible or wish to live ridiculously lavish lifestyles, but because now, living from paycheck to paycheck, people are more or less forced into debt to make ends meet.  They made a world where the planet is burning and dying in ways that might very well bring about the collapse of civilization as we know it.  And they created a world where people feel powerless to do anything about it.

Doesn’t it stand to reason that in a world such as this, where people feel utterly powerless, doesn’t it stand to reason that people would become obsessed with what they think they can control?  Isn’t the passion for safety a reflection of how everywhere we experience our lives and ability to live as precarious, and therefore do everything we can to protect ourselves and our children, whether with knee pads and helmets or public health measures or surveillance or regulating speech in every way possible to prevent offense?  In a world where there is such gross injustice and inequality, does it come as a surprise that egalitarian impulses would arise, manifesting themselves in things like every child getting a trophy, recognizing the worth of everyone in a world where the vast majority are treated as if they have no worth as can be seen in perpetual layoffs and firings at every level of industry and the uberfication of the economy rendering everyone disposable?  Likewise, we could read the policy of allowing students to take tests over and over again as a sort of distortion of the desire to right the injustices of a rigged and grossly unequal society.

Behind all of this, can we not discern a profound desire to control something, anything, in a world that is profoundly beyond our control.  We can discern an egalitarian impulse and desire for justice or fairness, where these things are entirely absent.  If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, it is that the symptom is both a substitute form of satisfaction, a way of satisfying a repressed wish or desire, and a diversion that functions to lead us astray like a red herring.  What is sad in these symptomatic impulses is that they suggest a revolutionary, egalitarian impulse that is nonetheless impotent because it directs itself at the wrong things.  They see the world truly, but in a distorted fashion as if through the bottom of a glass.

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Hopefully I’ll be forgiven this impressionistic, scattered post.  I’ve fallen prey to a terrible cold and am not completely here.

Rather than saying that time is money, perhaps it would be better to say that money is time.  And what is time, if not life? We only have so much of it and then it’s done, gone.  If, then, money is time and time is money, then it follows that everywhere we are buying and spending life.  This is especially true under wage labor– and it matters little whether one is paid by the hour or gets a salary –for in wage labor, I sell my time in return for money.  Those who buy my labor– my time, my life –get to keep the products of my labor, for during that time I belonged to them.  In buying goods with the money I receive, I am in turn buying the remnants of the lives of others; the accretions of their time.  Moreover, when I go into debt, I am promising future time and life to someone else.  A portion of my time, a portion of my time, will belong to this other for the next five, ten, fifteen, or thirty years.  Not only will my life and time belong to my employer, but it will also belong to this other that I’ve promised myself to in going into debt.

The more money one has, therefore, the more time and life one has.  For when one has wealth, they are not compelled to sell their time.  They can now buy time and life.  And what time and life are they buying?  They are buying the remains of the lives of other people.  They can own their own time and life precisely because they can afford to buy the life and time of other people to do things for them.  This is what many call “freedom”.  It turns out that there’s something ghoulish or vampiric about freedom.  It lives off of the life of others.  And, if that is not enough to make our hair stand on end this Halloween season, then we must also not forget that under the model of capitalism, some lives are worth more than others.  There is a ranking of the worth of life.  For one person, a unit of their life is worth $7, for another it is worth $25, and for yet another it is worth $250. Some lives are, apparently, more valuable than others.  Perhaps this is subtly indicated in those ideologies that would deny people shelter, clothing, food, and healthcare on the grounds that these people didn’t work for it and are therefore underserving of it.  Their blood just isn’t worth as much.

Isn’t all of this really the difference between the capitalist and the worker?  As I discussed in my last post, it is not the capitalist that makes money– that belongs to workers and workers alone –but rather the capitalists money that makes money. In this regard, there’s a real sense in which it can be said that capitalists are undead; which is to say, that they are neither alive nor dead.  Or maybe we could say that they have infinite life.  It is not their life that makes their money.  They do not sell units of their life in the form of a wage or salary to make money.  Rather, they make their money buy selling the life and time of others— whether in direct or coagulated form –and somehow turn that life into more money in the form of profit.  But perhaps these are just musings borne of the delirium of my cold.

I’m almost embarrassed to write this post, but I hear this argument made so often that I feel it has to be addressed.  Among the most fundamental pillars of popular American support for capitalism is the belief that people should be rewarded for their labor (which, of course, is true).  The idea usually goes something like this:  the wealthy are wealthy because of their hard work.  They have the massive wealth they have because of their strong worth ethic, their ingenuity, their intelligence, and all the rest.  Therefore it would be an injustice and unfair punishment to tax them at a higher rate or place caps on what people earn.  This is a core ideological argument for popular American support for unbridled capitalism.  You will hear it at Thanksgiving dinner tables across the country, and ordinary Joe’s and Jackie’s will sagely state variations of this argument as they lean across the diner counter to refresh your coffee as you grumble about the latest Wall Street outrage.

Perhaps the first question to ask is the Nietzschean question of who sees the world this way.  As Nietzsche taught us, every enunciation presupposes a point of view, a standpoint of seeing the world the world in a certain way.  So who is it that sees massive accumulations of wealth as the result of hard work?  The answer is that only the worker– the person who must sell their labor as a commodity to live –can see the world in this way.  Us workers– and we should not assume that “worker” is a synonym for blue collar labor; it’s anyone who sells their labor to live –live in a universe where the only way we can live is by working for a wage.  As a consequence, the vast majority cannot even begin to imagine a universe where money is made in some way other than through labor or work.  As a result, we assume that this must be how capitalists make their money and that, if they have so much more money than we do, it is because they work harder, are more intelligent, have more ingenuity, and all the rest.  They must deserve what they have.  This is a fundamental illusion.

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Astronaut has now spent more continuous time in outer space than any other person in history.  Clocking in at 520 days, I can scarcely imagine what this must have been like.  The mission was conducted to gather data on the impact of long-term space dwelling on the human body to determine the feasibility of a mission to Mars, and the verdict, I think, is not good.  The passages I’ve read from his memoir of the experience are riveting and, I think, of great philosophical interest as raw material for thinking the being of beings.  The significance of Kelly’s experience goes well beyond insight into what happens to us when we are in space for prolonged periods of time, giving us a sense of both what it is to be a body and a thing.  In a certain respect, we can say that Kelly’s mission is the greatest of ontological experiments, for what it does is detach the body from the field in which it ordinarily dwells (the earth), raising the question of just what a body is.  From the standpoint of object-oriented ontology, I find this experiment incredibly interesting, because it both confirms, after a fashion, the thesis of withdrawal insofar as we discover startling features of the body in a zero-g environment, while also refuting it.  If the latter, then this is because we discover just how dependent bodies and things are on the fields in which they dwell or exist.

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On this point, Lacan is emphatic:  repression only bears on representations.  The consequence of this is that affects and drives cannot be repressed.  It belongs to the essence of an affect to affect us or to be felt.  It belongs the essence of drive to, well, drive us.  However, it would be a mistake to take affect as a reliable guide to truth or what the affect is about, for affect is itself a composite structure.  Let us take the Saussurean sign as a model of affect.  On the one hand, we have the signifier.  On the other hand, we have the signified.  In the domain of affect, we can say that the signifier is the felt component of the affect:  it is the way that anger, frustration, joy, excitement, hatred, and all the rest feel.

Stone Marten or Beech Marten (Martes foina), Normandy, France

However, every affect has a representational component as well, which would be the signified dimension of the affect.  While the felt component of the affect cannot be repressed– it will be experienced, as we say, one way or another –the representational component can be repressed.  A feeling and the representation that animates it can be divided or separated from one another, such that the feeling is felt without its “representational animator” being present to thought.  An in being split from its content or signified, from its representational cause, the affect can drift from its true psychic cause to other things.  The affect can displace the feeling from one representation to another.  We see this, above all, in the case of phobias.  In galeophobia, the person experiences intense panic and fear when encountering weasels, even if only in the form a picture of a weasel, or even when hearing the word “weasel”.  “Weasel” is a representational content that accompanies the felt or experienced component of panic and anxiety.

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Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society?

~Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 6

Perhaps it could be said that a central motivation behind the rise of the new materialism and object-oriented ontology was a discontent with a focus on the discursive or semiotic in cultural theory and the more critically minded social sciences.  To be sure, there were exceptions to this– there always are! –and both of these traditions have learned and drawn deeply from these exceptions, but it is no exaggeration to suggest that a focus on the semiotic was hegemonic in continentally inflected theory up through the 90s.  In the world of philosophy, phenomenology, with its focus on lived experience, was the dominant theoretical framework.  We also had the much less dominant thought of the critical theorists, post-structuralists, and postmoderns, with their talk about talk about the world.  I’ve always felt that Lacan summed this style of thinking up best when, in his late seminar Encore, he declared that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric.”  It is not just the unconscious that is structured like language, but reality is also structured like a language.  We throw the web of signs and signifiers over the earth, categorizing and sorting things in innumerable ways that are deeply consequential to all life on the planet.

This point is dramatically driven home in “The Instance of the Letter”, when Lacan points out that it is nothing about the doors, nor the rooms behind them, that makes one a lady’s room and the other the men’s room, but rather it is the agency of the semiotic or the intervention of the signifier that creates this partition that then becomes normative in the lives of people.  While the structuration of gendered restrooms is rather minor– though we can see how heated this issue has become in American debates over which restrooms trans people can use –it becomes far more consequential when we are speaking of identities and what makes a person the sort of person they are.  What makes a man a man, a woman a woman, someone a person of color, or the very distinction between the human and the animal?  The greatness of the social constructivist and linguistic turn was to both diagnose a sort of illusion whereby we see the properties of the thing as itself dictating its identity in a signifying assemblage, and to show how these were effects of language and society.  In this respect, the linguistic turn and social constructivist critique very closely resembled Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism.  In the naive position, value seems to be something that resides in the commodity itself.  What Marx so brilliantly showed was how value is not a property of the object itself– say the chunk of gold –but instead arises from social relations that, in their turn, veil relations of domination and exploitation.  When we pierce the illusion of the commodity, the possibility of emancipation opens as we can then discern these social relations.  Likewise in the case of the signifying apparatus and the way it structures identities, the world, and social relations.  We can see, for example, how very different the phenomenon of addiction might look when we no longer understand it as being merely a condition a person suffers from, but a performative discourse by which people name themselves as addicts and doctors, experts, a legal apparatus, and institutions classify people as such.  All sorts of new questions emerge.

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I have an interview out with the Dutch design magazine, MONU.  This issue devoted to small urbanism.  Unfortunately the entire interview is not available online, but a portion of it can be found here.  Consider picking up a copy!