We Will Belong No More

February 10, 2011 § 6 Comments

“Capitalist culture may have reached a new stage: while industrial and even advanced capitalism enabled and demanded a split self, shifting smoothly from the realm of strategic to domestic interactions, from the economic to the emotional, from the selfish to the cooperative — the internal logic of contemporary capitalism is different: not only is the cost-benefit cultural repertoire of the market now used in virtually all private and domestic interactions but it is also as if it has become increasingly difficult to switch from one register of action (the economic) to another (the romantic).”

— Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies

If our dreams are part of the fabric of the world, then surely we do not live in it.

The implosion of fantasy life as distinct from everyday life is most often discussed in the context of a decontextualized remark of Fredric Jameson’s, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Does the end of the world mean anything? That apocalypse is, according to this meme, easier to imagine than the end of capitalism already suggests a meaning. A failure of ‘our’ ability to imagine alternatives to self-destruction, born out of ‘our’ failure to think about capitalism.

Supposing such an intimate relation between imagination and cognition is typical of those who make the utopian imagination the register of social change. As a defense and redefinition of (Hegelian) resolution, mopey modern man is to overcome his many problematic divisions, between himself and other classes, other races, other genders, not to mention his interior divisions and perversities, by accepting them as constitutive of his selfhood. He will subject this newly objectified self to rigorous analysis, as a proxy and ideal model for the contradictions of ‘society at large.’ Having reached this Archimedean point, he will then narrate his way to self-mastery by way of narrating the social totality — precisely (and artfully) articulating his objections to the world while taking part in the multiplication of fantastic alternatives (as producer or critic).

This definition of the critical intellectual, while fading for a long time, still gets propped up by those who want to maintain it as a profession. An artist, and/or a theorist, and/or a poet, who delivers messages from another world, who is able to grasp the truth of the real world more fully than those dumbly immersed in it. Sometimes this world is contentless (“One should bear in mind that the philosopher’s task is not to propose solutions, but to reformulate the problem itself, to shift the ideological framework within which we hitherto perceived the problem”), other times it has an excess of content. But when the narrow audience for this sort of thing has Internet access to any information and any fantasy it could ever want or need, then members of cultural institutions who survived by serving as arbiters and gatekeepers, from magazines to humanities departments, can’t continue without becoming more like ‘intellectual entrepreneurs‘ (or like intellectual laborers) than they already were. It has been plain since the ’80s if not earlier that there is no difference between the middlebrow cliché ‘culture’ and the academic cliché ‘social context’; but perhaps it has finally become impossible to keep pretending.

So, the desire called utopia, the Marxian rebuttal to the liberal triumphalism of 1989, can’t be separated from its manifestations. While it does transcend genre, including novels, films, advertisements, video games, manifestos, hashtags, and academic monographs, there is no general will that links Ursula LeGuin to Levi’s, or that separates them; no authentic human essence, no Spirit (however paradoxical and negatively defined) behind both labor activism and, um, Levi’s. The only binding agent is capitalism, that is, the common set of economic relations that determines the conditions for their existence. A self-conscious utopia, in the sense of a vision of a better (post-capitalist) world, is a fantasy object, a promise and a wager, and can be earnest, disingenuous, ironic, playful, or anything else. But then critique is the same thing. If their function was at one time pedagogical it’s hard to imagine how they could serve now. Even the goals of “cognitive mapping” (Jameson’s proposed solution to this problem), “to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system,” seem unteachable. Because let’s be frank: precisely as a total system, the world is not that indecipherable, our positions within it not that opaque. What is being asked for is a technique, an aesthetic, a form, maybe even a technology, with the power to counteract first world apathy. This means countering both the 24 hour entertainment machine in which that population is immersed and its own interest in maintaining comfortable lives untroubled by other responsibilities. Any aid to “cognitive mapping” would seem to require more emotional and affective force than intellectual. This is why critiques of left-wing popular revolt from the standpoint of theory are always in bad faith: because if there are any images and words that can emotionally, affectively situate their audience within the global system in all its violence and the immediacy of struggle against it, then why not those produced by actual revolutionaries.

Utopia is not just an impossible promise, it is a cultural product. But the target audience of first world petty bourgeois culture workers is, to say the least, unlikely to embrace revolutionary praxis in any significant numbers as a result of consuming more ‘culture,’ however ‘correct,’ ‘well-crafted,’ or ‘independently produced.’ In its inevitable failure, it stands in for what is desired: the classic Freudian lost object, or the objective manifestation of prophecy. The principal surplus of utopian niche product, then, seems to be not revolution but consolation. In the book quoted from above, Illouz identifies a style of “therapeutic communication” assembled from Freudian psychoanalysis, feminism, and Victorian male-oriented self-help literature, which she argues became the mainstream emotional jargon for 20th century America and reaches its apotheosis in forms of sociality specific to the Internet (she looks at online dating, but it’s just as applicable to Facebook). Its defining feature for Illouz is the compulsion to ‘objectively’ narrate emotional suffering, requiring skills and learned behaviors that (though she is more coy about this point than I am) reinforce class divisions just as surely as do ‘intelligence’ or ‘taste.’
“Emotions are by their very nature situational and indexical; they point to the ways in which the self is positioned within a particular interaction, and in that respect, they are a sort of shorthand for the self to understand how and where it is positioned in a particular situation. Emotions orient action by using tacit and concrete cultural knowledge of a particular object and making us take short-cuts to evaluate this object and act toward it…In contrast, value-rationality, cognitive, and instrumental rationality and the process of ‘commensuration,’ all required to perform fluently the [therapeutic] model of communication, form a cognitive style which empties relationships of their particularity and transforms them into objects which, because they are evaluated through standards of fairness, equality, and need-satisfaction, become more likely to know [typo?] the fate of commodities traded.”
Shifting this analysis over from individual confession to the culture industry more generally, utopian narratives, imagery, and critiques, tending as they do toward thematic obviousness and overt rearrangement of clichés, begin to look like so many derivatives of the radical imagination, adding up to an asset bubble of fanciful, comforting representations safely detached from the actual revolutionary labor to which they serve as substitute and prophylactic. The old expression of romantic longing thinly disguised by its contemporary anti-sentimental style, consisting of plausible scenarios, ethical theories, constitutions, action plans, and devastating critique. Or: the commodification of collective desire as a form of distinction. It is in this way, I think, that fantasy becomes the stuff of our lives.

I write these unoriginal remarks so that they may stand as this blog’s starting assumptions.


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