At approximately 10:30 EST tonight, the Juno spacecraft will enter the orbit of the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. Juno has been traveling there at 60,000mph for 5 years. When she enters Jupiters orbit she will be moving at a speed of 165,000mph; faster than any device made by humans in history. To put this into perspective, a bullet speeds through the air at about 1,700mph. When Juno enters orbit, she’ll encounter more radiation than any technology we’ve ever built. Background radiation on earth is about .39RAD. In orbit around Jupiter it is about 20,000,000RAD. You can listen to a hint of this hellish nimbus here.
I suspect that some well meaning (or triumphant) critical theorist or Foucaultian will come along to disabuse me of this notion; one of those souls we seem to encounter everywhere today who knows nothing but cynicism and that finds any love to be a disgusting and dangerous naivete that must be destroyed and trampled. I hope you’ll bite your tongue and leave me to my illusions, if illusions they are. What I love about missions like the Juno mission, the reason they fill me with some small glimmer of hope in a world where hope is very quickly disappearing, is that they’re essentially useless. Enormous labor and wealth has been expended to go to Jupiter. I’ll get in a lot of trouble with my actor-network theorist friends for saying this, but while Juno, no doubt, created a profit for someone, somewhere, Juno isn’t really for anything. She is not for making a profit. She is not for curing diseases. She is not for the invention of useful technologies that will improve our lives by saving labor or making things more efficient. She is not for creating more effective weapons. We just want to know. Perhaps Juno will yield useful applications in this area, but these are secondary, ancillary, not primary. No doubt I’m suffering from an illusion here. If so, please don’t disabuse me of it.
At the material level, our planet is burning, it is dying, as a result of neoliberalism. This is what I was alluding to in a recent post on the extinction of the future. The point was that Dasein has material conditions; that it presupposes an earth that abides where we, as organic beings, can continue to live. The extinction of the future is, quite literally, the extinction of organic beings such as ourselves along with so many other living beings. Post-nihilists chastised me for finding this thought crushing, but I don’t see any other way of living than by willing life. Heidegger gets so much wrong, but he is right to observe that our age is the age where all things fall under enframing and standing-reserve. Everything is reduced to a resource for exploitation; everything is treated as a tool to be put to use. On the one hand, neoliberalism is a material apparatus or assemblage, a collection of machines, consisting of practices, institutions, and technologies where all beings, natural and made by humans, are exploited. Neoliberalism is a thermodynamic machine; a machine that finds energy to be put to work everywhere. Here neoliberalism is a system of corporeal machines that acts upon other corporeal machines such as human bodies, organic beings, minerals and liquids. I recall, years ago, watching a segment on How Its Made about how chicks are produced. Everything was automated. Everything was used. Even the shells. Everything that could be extracted, including the dead, was extracted.
On the other hand, neoliberalism is an incorporeal machine; a form or way of thinking; a semiotic machine. As an incorporeal machine, neoliberalism is that machinic assemblage of thought that instrumentalizes everything, coding the being or sense of all things as resources from which energy and profit can be extracted. The form of the neoliberal semiotic machine is USE. Everything is treated as a use-value for the sake of an exchange-value that will generate a surplus-value. Today we even speak of education and in these terms. In the case of education, all learning must be thought in terms of the job benefits it might convey or in terms of how it contributes to national and global economy. Education is instrumentalized and there is no knowledge that is valuable for its own sake. In the case of sex, we talk about the surprising health benefits of regular sex. No doubt there is even an entire furtive discourse on the instrumental value and possibilities of profit to be found in death. This machine is so pervasive that we don’t even realize we’re thinking in instrumental terms. Our very neurons have been programed to think of everything in terms of its use. I worry about this often in philosophy, where it seems that there must always be a political use to a vector of thought and that certain questions can’t be useless or valuable in their own right.
And that’s really what the useless is: it is that which is valuable in and for itself. In the open to the Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle distinguished between relative and absolute ends. A relative value or end is something that is only valuable for the sake of something else. For example, the value of money is relative in the sense that money isn’t valuable for its own sake but only for the sake of the things that it can buy. By contrast, absolute ends or values are things that are valuable for their own sake. They aren’t for anything else; they are for themselves. These are the things that make life worth living; they are the excellencies of existence. They are things like friendship, love, health, beauty, knowledge, leisure, the feeling of vitality and wakefulness, joy, laughter, and justice. They don’t serve any end beyond themselves. They are desirable for their own sake. What disappears under neoliberalism, what becomes harder and harder to discern, what departs from the earth, are things that are valuable for their own sake. Two men push over an ancient rock formation in Goblin Valley, Utah because they can’t imagine that it should abide simply because it is ancient, rare, and beautiful; existing nowhere else in the world. They take delight in destroying that which has no instrumental value, that which is not a relative value, because that which is not instrumental is beneath contempt and an affront to the nihilism that now dwells at the heart of our being. A core component of fighting the instrumental machine that now haunts every aspect of our thought and culture lies in refusing that frame that would reduce everything to a use and in liberating islands of uselessness that are values in their own right.