“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


Coming up for air. There is something essential about that expression. George Orwell used it to entitle one of his essay collections, I believe. Hegel was not the first to compare doing philosophy to swimming – complaining that Kant wanted to learn to swim on dry land – and Melville, in one of his great letters to Hawthorne, spoke of ‘deep divers”. The Melville letter is too quotable, so let me paste a little of it here:

“I was very agreeably disappointed in Mr Emerson. I had heard of him as full of transcendentalisms, myths & oracular gibberish; I had only glanced at a book of his once in Putnam's store -- that was all I knew of him, till I heard him lecture. -- To my surprise, I found him quite intelligible, tho' to say truth, they told me that that night he was unusually plain. -- Now, there is a something about every man elevated above mediocrity, which is, for the most part, instinctualy perceptible. This I see in Mr Emerson. And, frankly, for the sake of the argument, let us call him a fool; -- then had I rather be a fool
than a wise man; -- I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he don't attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can't fashion the plumet that will. I'm not talking of Mr. Emerson now -- but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world
began. “

This was written in March, 1849. The deep diver I’ve been following, Marx, is busy writing for the Neuen Rheinischen Zeitung that year of the bitter backwash from the revolutionary year, 1848. And there I will leave him, for a moment, and come up for air – as one comes up for air in these things, a reader avoiding the bends in the heavy flow of prose through which he mounts, hopefully, having speared himself a truth, an opinion, a flash of something in the dark – by moving to another writer, Georg Simmel. Simmel’s ponds are not so deep as Marx’s oceans, but a gnat can drown in a teardrop, can’t he? As I have been following the flickering light of alienation and its effects, I want to draw some attention to an article by Jorge Arditi entitled “Simmel’s theory of alienation and the decline of the irrational”.

Alienation has characteristics in Simmel that derive from the German philosophical tradition, with its image of some merger of the impossibly jostling subject and object, that cutter’s game – take the knife to skin and muscle and press as hard as you can, the subject will not bleed out, not there, not ever.

Arditi nicely surveys the meaning of the rational and ‘nonrational”:

“The definition of the nonrational as a capacity, as a fundamental condition of being which the growth of the rational makes increasingly difficult to express, contrasts with the prevailing concepts of the rational and the nonrational in sociology today. Although many disagree significantly about the specifics of the terms, to sociologists rationality and nonrationality are attributes of action, not of persons. To Parsons ([1937] 1968:60ff.) and Alexander (1982:72ff.) … the terms must be understood primarily in an instrumental sense, denoting the extent to which action is or is not guided by considerations of pure efficiency. … Rational choice theorists' focus on rationality derives from an emphasis on goal orientation-a characteristic of action, not people. Indeed, but for a few exceptions-the most telling being Weber's image of the person underlying his concept of "affectual action"… -men and women are seen as basically rational, calculative beings…”

Caught in this paradigm like a whale in a mousetrap, alienation loses its gravity and pull – or to put it in other terms consonant with LI's obsessions, imagination loses its claims on our existence. Simmel, characteristically, considers these definitions of rationality more as reflections of a certain social order, in the throes of monetizing human relationships – thus, rationality is captured and used in a local sense that does not reflect its sweep. And, similarly, the non-rational – which in the positivist schema, becomes the inefficient – also ‘thins out’:

“Rationality and nonrationality, then, should be seen not only as attributes of action, but, first, as attributes of the person. To Simmel, action is not rational or nonrational because of some objective criterion of rationality, of some principle derived from the internal logic of action itself, but, rather, because of the particular elements of a person's inner life-his or her intellect, emotions, faith, or aesthetic sensibility-that come to orient practice. According to Simmel, the nonrational is a primary, essential element of "life," an integral aspect of our humanity. Its gradual eclipse in the expanses of a modem, highly rationalized world implies, then, an unquestionable impoverishment of being.”

Simmel’s use of a subject/object terminology is as traditional as a lectern in a classroom. Things get lively, though, when, instead of thinking of their separation as a conceptual property, Simmel thinks it through as social and physical distance. It is here that we carve a new entrance into the circuit of connodities against money, and the circuit of money against commodities.

“Toward the end of The Philosophy of Money ([1907] 1978:470-477), Simmel defines the concept of distance. Imagine, he suggests, an arrangement of life's elements in a circle, the individual at its center. "Whatever our object may be," he writes, "it can, with its content remaining unchanged, move closer to the centre or to the periphery of our sphere of interests and concerns" ([1907] 1978:472). The relationships between a self and an object can be therefore characterized "by the illustrative symbol of a definite or changing distance between the two ... whereby the diversity of the innermost relationship to objects (not only in distinctness, but also in the quality and whole character of the images received) is interpreted as a diversity in our distance from them" ([1907] 1978:472-473, emphasis added). "Distance," then, is a heuristic concept that helps us conceive the connection between subject and object in relative, variable terms.”

To be continued

cut and continue here:

Simmel, like Marx, was a man who could see a series when it shoved him – or his culture – in the back. Unlike Marx, for whom the series of objects must be put into relation to the history of their making, Simmel brackets the labor theory of value. Instead, he’s concerned about their effects, and organizes them in terms of distances. Social distance, in Simmel, is not physical distance. It combines other senses of distance – for instance, what one means by saying that some person is ‘distant’. Arditi points out that, for Simmel, the emotion that annuls distance – or aims to – is love.

“Remoteness, that is, does not set in because people have nothing in common, but because the things they have in common are, or have become, too common. Likewise, nearness results not from an absence of similarities but from the specificity and exclusivity of these similarities.

At its ideal state, nearness becomes the equivalent of "love."13 Like love, to be perfectly close to someone implies apprehending that person without introducing between the I and the other meanings that extend beyond I and other. In this sense, nearness implies the sharing of what we could call existentially generated meanings. These meanings surely exist only in relation to some other, nondistinctive meanings that make them seem distinctive.”

This, it seems to me, does not do justice to the phenomenology of love, although it does speak to what one might call the relational inertia to which it is subject, and which becomes the great maker of crises in the system of love-based marriages.

However, let’s pass on by this somewhat simplistic view of love, because it is only a step towards the main thing I want to highlight in Arditi’s interpretation of Simmel. The main thing has to do with the modern regime of emotions coordinate with the modern regime of desires for objects. Love is a model emotion, for Simmel, in as much as it makes clear that the relationship of the subject and the object is one of degrees of distance. And it is on those degrees of distance that the capitalist regime, with its emphasis on exhange values, presses:

“… the objectivization of exchange provokes an irreversible expansion of social distance in society-a distance that, although made more puzzling by the multiplication of emotional responses it makes possible, takes further expression in, and is further reinforced by, the subsequent intellectualization of the a posteriori.15 People are deprived of their specificity, of their subjective concreteness, and therefore become "ob- jects," impersonal entities with no individual meaning. They come to perceive one another primarily in utilitarian terms and lose their capacity to create direct, authentic relationships with others. And all this happens in such a way that this new form of being in the world becomes ingrained in people's personalities.”

As I have pointed out before, there is a curious lack of correspondence between, on the one hand, the utilitarian absolute of egotism – the egotism of one of Sade’s great fuckers – and the egotism of the capitalist, or the capitalist ‘subject’. Its egotism seems anything but the expression of the ‘self-made man’ or the independent self – rather, it seems pathetically attached to the approval of others, and the way that approval is socially expressed. Simmel’s theory of social distance is one way of approaching this paradox:

“According to Simmel, with the decline of our nonrational capabilities part of our authenticity disappears and the wholeness of the ego breaks up. And neither effect, he suggests again and again, can be overridden by our gain in self-determination or by the new plurality of feeling. If the world becomes more complex and in some sense even richer, if it opens to us in ways unknown before, our inner experiential scope nonetheless decreases. If mediated by a larger number of intellectual contents, the variety of our emotions increases, their intensity weakens irremediably, and the meaning of being human consequently changes-for the worse.”

If we dispense with Simmel’s nostalgia, what we have here is a start on something key in modernity – the increase in the variety of our emotions, and the decrease in their depth.

I am less concerned with Simmel’s rightness or wrongness about love than about the affectual effects of a world of mediate and immediate objects. Here Simmel is helpful in making us think about alienation not as a relationship of the individual worker to his or her circumstances, but also of the individual worker to other workers. For if workers are supposed to unite, that association – if we hold to a richer sense of alienation, one that is generated and politically exploited within the capitalist system – must somehow deal with the alienation of workers inter se. In other words, one must ask what that appeal for unification means in terms of social practice, especially as it is an appeal erected on the very modern erasure of family metaphors. Although Marx does his best to make it very plain that, given the international scope of capital, any labour movement that is not international will fail under the burden of its role in universal history – there seems to be a blindspot on all sides here as to why the international workers of the world did not unite, and – even in the climate of international corporate power – still have not united. The simple answer is that the power of money is greater than the power of labor associations. The more complex answer has to do with the appeal of nationalism as a tool developed by the bourgeoisie that somehow clouds the worker’s vision. And I don’t reject either answer as false – both are partially true. But both should lead us back to asking the question that I’ve been toying with – what is class interest? What alienating force operates within the working class to defeat its feeling of solidarity, workers for workers? And how can one appeal to solidarity if one’s theory strips the worker to the bone and presents us with merely another power player in the computer game of universal history?

No comments: