This week we began Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in my intro philosophy courses. I am extremely excited to teach this text. Not only is it beautifully written, but Lucretius’ brilliance glows on every page in both the ethical concerns that animate the text and his precise and careful observations of various natural phenomena to support his arguments. In my view, a good philosophical thesis problematizes the world and creates research projects. Where before certain things seemed to be obvious features of the world, these hitherto familiar things now become bathed in the light of problems, demanding explanation in terms of the overarching thesis. Thus, for example, Lucretius’ atomism now turns the growth of a tree or water oozing from cave walls into problems or questions to be explained in terms of atoms. Stunning philosophical claims suddenly burst forth like lightening, such as the the claim that “all things are porous”.

Increasingly it looks like Lucretius was mistaken in his conception of atoms as the smallest units of indestructable matter– quantum mechanics seems to suggest that there are no smallest units of matter, only various rhythms and intensities of energy defined more as relations or fields that perpetually reconstitute themselves as dynamic processes in relation to other point-fields, than individual points –but nonetheless Lucretius’ thesis remains one that bathed the world in clarity, making possible questions and explanations that were not otherwise possible. This, too, is a virtue of a good thesis: It becomes lively towards its own material, such that the conditions are created where it can encounter the limits of what it is able to explain, allowing new theses to emerge. When thought is a patchwork quilt with no convictions, such liveliness does not occur as the most heterogeneous elements sit side by side in the patchwork making no claim on the matter.

Read on

The first thing that strikes the reader of Lucretius is the form of De Rerum Natura. Why is it written as a poem? After all, Lucretius could have presented his claims as a series of numbered points. Were he alive today he could have presented it as a Powerpoint presentation. Why, then, the poetic form? Lucretius writes:

I teach great things,
I try to loose men’s spirit from the ties,
Tight-knotted, which religion binds around them.
The Muses’ grace is on me, as I write
Clear verse about dark matters. This is not
A senseless affectation; there’s reason to it.
Just as when doctors try to give to children
A bitter medicine, they rim the cup
With honey’s sweetness, honey’s golden flavor,
To fool the silly little things, as far
As the lips at least, so that they’ll take the bitter
Dosage, and swallow it down, fooled, but not swindled,
But brought to health again through double-dealing,
So now do I, because this doctrine seems
Too grim for those who never yet have tried it,
So grim that people shrink from it, I’ve meant
To explain the system in a sweeter music,
To rim the lesson, as it were, with honey,
Hoping, this way, to hold your mind with verses
While you are learning all that form, that patter
Of the way things are.

(Humphries trans, The Way Things Are, 46-47)

I was delighted to come across this passage as it not only provides the students, frustrated by the poetic form, with a rationale for this form, but also gave me the opportunity to sing the praises of rhetoric. Lucretius’ text functions on two planes of composition, the one composed of strict arguments of an inductive and deductive sort, along with the production of concepts (the astonishing concept of the porous, the invention of the void, the distinction between attributes and by-products, etc), the other being the rhetorical dimension. Recognizing that often the spirit is not persuaded by clear and rigorous arguments despite their soundness, Lucretius hopes to provoke aesthetic pleasure in his readers so as to disarm them and make them sympathetic to his austure metaphysics that otherwise flies in the face of our superstitious yearnings and beliefs. Thus, Lucretius’ arguments and concepts are a bitter medicine that would bring us to health by freeing us of the terror and anxiety– terror and anxiety caused by superstitious beliefs such as those that the Gods judge us and exert their wraith through natural disasters, or that we will be punished for all eternity for not living a particular way –while his rhetoric, his poetics, are sweet honey that allows this medicine to go down more easily as we work our way towards intellectual maturity and acquire the capacity to explain the world in terms of natural causes.

In my tireless quest to promote the humanities to my students, I seized this opportunity to speak more extensively about rhetoric and the importance of rhetoric, so that I might seduce them to take a greater interest in philosophy, literature, english, history, and the social sciences. This time around I chose to appeal to their avarice, their desire to be successful and fabulously wealthy, rather than the high ideals surrounding the tradition of the liberal arts. This is, after all, the wealthiest county in the state, and my students seem profoundly cynical of high falutin ethical ideals, seeing the world itself as a dark and cynical place, a battleground of competing interests, where they have to fight for their own advantage and piece of the pie, rather than advance idealistic causes. Moreover, I consistently get the impression that my students resent being in classes such as mine (though they generally seem to enjoy the class), seeing classes such as philosophy and english as bullshit requirements they have to fill to get their degrees, and outside their real classes pertaining to business or whatever profession they will enter.

Thus, in a move that was not without guilt, I declared that the most lucrative jobs in the world are jobs in rhetoric. I say I adopted this rhetorical strategy with a certain amount of guilt and hesitation, for in arguing in this way I was giving credence to a set of values central to capitalism and treating those values as the telos defining the value of all other things. Yet when speaking before an audience, it is necessary to work with the ethos of that audience and work with the potentials that ethos renders available. As Rumsfeld would say, “you go to speak with the ethos you’re given, not the ethos you would like.” In appealing to avarice and a particular set of values common to this cultural milieu, the hope is then that something very different might occur, and that the student that begins to pursue the study of the various humanities, hoping to gain the rhetorical skills to become fabulously wealthy will, in measures, be seduced to a very different set of values no longer shackled to the telos of capital as the measure of all things. That is, perhaps, in the becoming-capital of the humanities, a becoming-humanities of capital might also take place, allowing a line of flight from a particular system of values. Or this, at least, is how I attempt to mitigate my shame.

Drawing a distinction between the world of Survivorman and our world, I proceeded to distinguish between those tools and weapons (again the value system of capital) that are useful in particular jungle and those that are useful in Survivorman’s jungle. For those who haven’t seen it, Survivorman is a reality survival show where the host, Les Stroud, is dropped for a week in exotic and remote places such as the Amazon rain forests, remote regions of Alaska, the Antarctic, etc., and has to make his own way with a very limited repitoire of odd tools (they’re different every time), as if he had fallen into these situations as a result of an emergency without preparing for them. He does all of his own filming without the benefit of a crew, and spends the week trying to find food, build shelter, etc. Often things do not go very well, and he ends up very hungry, without sufficient water or shelter. Over the last couple of seasons he seems to have aged from these experiences.

The skills Stroud possesses are largely useless in our world. For the most part, many of us have our basic needs met– even if not exactly in the way we would like –and are not faced with serious questions of how to make fire, find food and water, build shelter, etc. Ours is a world of communications, images, symbols, sound-bites, speech. Regardless of what one pursues later in life, these are the tools with which one will be working. If rhetoric is desirable as a skill, then this is because you can use it to get people to do shit and because you can critically unpack those rhetorical strategies that are attempting to get you to do shit (often against your own self-interest or aims). If this were not the case, lawyers, advertisers, marketing men, televangelists, political consultants, and so on would not be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, collectively billions of dollars, for their skills. If rhetoric did not work– whether visual or in speech –it wouldn’t be such a sought after skill in employees by those who wish to advance their ambitions. Just think of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Frank Luntz has been paid for his political consulting… For simply coming up with a few well turned phrases. And which disciplines will best serve students in developing these skills, if not the humanities and the social sciences, where one works intensively for years, learning how to read, write, and think creatively. Certainly this isn’t the case with business degrees, which arguably shouldn’t be offered by universities at all. Again, I hate myself for this line of argument.

This discussion of rhetoric bled into an analysis of rhetoric as it is deployed in various television commercials such as the Geico caveman commercials, commercials for various erectile disfunction pills such as Cialis (gotta wake the students up), car commericals, the swiffer sweeper, and the iPhone. The interesting feature of most commercials is that the techniques used to advertise them seldom has much, if anything, to do with the product at all. Rather, commercials instead sell fantasies… Usually fantasies that either appeal to our narcissism or self-love (the caveman commercials that implicitly appeal to our superiority to neanderthals), sexual desires (the swiffer sweeper where the women are always breaking up with someone for someone else who fulfills them more completely), desires for mastery and control, where we’re freed from the ordinary constraints of our bodies and lives (the Hummer commercials where we are able to conquer the world and go anywhere), or our desires for a better world where we’re freed from the drudgery of work and human ugliness (many car commercials that take place on an empty, scenic road– implicitly referring to the irritations caused by other human beings –and the whimsical, annoying, iPhone commercials that evoke a whole counter-cultural politics where technology doesn’t dominate us, but rather improves our lives, and where we get the sense of people who are kind and nice to one another, without any of the ordinary ugliness that characterizes so many anonymous interpersonal relations).

In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek argues that ideology should not be sought in the conscious thoughts and intentions of a person, but rather ideology is to be found in the objects themselves. It is not persons who have ideological beliefs, but rather objects behave in our stead. Zizek is, of course, being cute and dramatic in this claim; however, his point is that the ordinary bourgeois knows very well that, for instance, there is nothing magical about money, that it is simply a sign representing a value, and that it has no worth. However, despite the bourgeois’ sound, nominalistic reasoning, the bourgeois nonetheless behaves towards money as if it were something magical, as if it contained value in and of itself. Zizek provides a number of examples to illustrate this point. Thus, for example, the Tibetan prayer wheel prays on our behalf, relieving us of the need to pray for ourselves. We simply attach our prayer to the wheel, and the wheel does the work for us, leaving us free to go about our business. The television laugh track experiences the show for us, relieving us of the exhausting activity of having to laugh while watching the show or feel sorrow when witnessing certain terrible events. When I watch a comedy with a friend I might very well laugh out loud, but when alone the show does the work for me. Nonetheless, I speak of the show the following day to my colleagues, talking about how amusing I found it. According to Zizek there are even people who hire professional grievers to wail at funerals of loved ones. A friend and I used to joke that online dating follows this model. You place your romantic ad on a website and it is the ad itself that enjoys in your place by virtue of the number of views it gets. In this way you’re relieved of the irritation of dating and can go about your ordinary business.

In citing these examples Zizek is, of course, expanding Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. According to Marx, commodity fetishism is that feature of capitalism such that social relations come to appear not as relations among people, but rather as relations among things. Our social relations, as it were, come to be embodied in things rather than as relations between people.

All of this begs the question of what it is that we’re really consuming when we’re consuming commodities. Take the Hummer. The reality of the Hummer is certainly very different than what I see advertised on television. I cannot drive my Hummer off a cliff into the ocean and drive under water like a submarine, nor do I generally conquer the world and nature with my muscular vehicle. Rather, it is likely that I use this massive truck to drive back and forth between the office and home. I remain locked in traffic just as I was before. Indeed, far from decreasing my level of stress, it is likely that the Hummer increases my stress as it is a large car that takes up most of the lane, thereby perpetually generating the worry that someone else will run into me.

The case is similar with the iPhone. The iPhone commercials present a world where technology finally overcomes all its limitations, becomes rational, and where the various functions of technology are localized in one convenient, aesthetically appealing device. The well manicured hand that touches the buttons in the commercial, coupled with the timber of the man’s voice, evoke images of hip regions of the country such as San Francisco, Seattle, or Greenwich Village, where people wear corduroy pants and J. Crew sweaters, have leftist political orientations, are interested in interesting things, and are kind to one another. The whimsical music in the background evokes images of a sunny day in a happy world, where everything is amusing and everything is done for the sake of amusement. In short, the commercials evoke a world that is entertaining and characterized by rich friendships, not a world of labor or work. Yet it is likely that the reality of the iPhone is a reality where the phone is used for work and labor, where most of the functions are never used, and where the phone is an integral part of the daily drudgery that characterizes life.

It would seem that what we are consuming when we consume the commodity, is not so much the commodity itself, it’s “use-value”, but rather its symbolic-value. Part of this symbolic-value is, of course, the prestige that it confers. But another part of this symbolic-value is not the commodity as a sign of status, but rather the commodity as a proxy for utopia. It is sometimes suggested that images of the future, images of utopia, have disappeared from the world. We are said to live in an age that is pervaded by cynicism, where the great political imaginaries of the 19th century and early 20th century, have departed from the world such that they are obtrusive in their absence.

However, precisely the opposite is true. The world in which we live is a world pervaded by utopian imaginaries. In and through advertising– and examples from other areas could be evoked –we live in a world that is literally saturated by utopian imaginaries and visions: Utopian images of sexual and romantic relations that surmount the impossibility of the sexual relation, where an Herbal Essence shampoo or Axe body spray can prove more satisfying than the most intense amorous encounter; imaginaries of technological utopia where the frustrations that characterize our current techno-sphere are surmounted and all the irritations that populate are mundane dailiness are solved; social utopias where people are kind to one another and needs and desires are filled, and where we have winding empty, scenic, roads where we can drive for hours (perhaps utopia in this imaginary shouldn’t be thought as “nowhere”, but rather as noone… But of course, me).

In consuming the product we also give voice to our utopian yearnings by proxy, in absentia, as a supplement or remainder… But in such a way as to not change this present, this world, but in the fullest sense of a supplement: as something that intervenes in this world to render it tolerable without risking the disappointed of failed attempts to change this world. Perhaps when Zizek or Jodi Dean evokes the values of sacrifice to revolutionary politics, this sacrifice should not be thought as a necessary sacrifice to throw a wrench into the mechanisms of capitalist production, but rather the sacrifice of a desire based on supplementarity, where the future is always deferred, and desire desires through the surrogate.