“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

Sunday, February 20, 2011

the thread

“The first distinction I would make is between two major classes of line,
which I shall call threads and traces. By no means all lines fall into either
category, but perhaps the majority do, and they will be of most importance
for my argument. A thread is a filament of some kind, which may
be entangled with other threads or suspended between points in threedimensional
space. At a relatively microscopic level threads have surfaces;
however, they are not drawn on surfaces.” – Tim Ingold, Lines: a brief history, 41

The God Varuna, for example, has the magical power to tie people at a distance by ties as magic as all sovereignty in these [indo-european] civilizations. Varuna is always omnivoyant, all powerful and a ‘binder’ by that very magic. Indra, himself, ties by the atmosphere that is his laces and his thread. Varuna acts like a binder with his passive reticulation, Indra proceeds by aggressive acts of imprisonment.” – Christian Werckele, “The power of the ephemeral and the network of the invisible”.

There are three themes that I should clarify here, should have clarified by now.
One is that the character of man or woman under capitalism is always in some relationship, whether voluntary or involuntary, knowing or unknowing, with the mythic rational economic agent, with homo oeconomicus. Though first explicitly given a name and a habitation in the golden years of mathematical economics, when the models were carved out of perfect and perfectly fictitious models of marketplaces structured by the irresistible attraction of an equilibrium between supply and demand, the myth has roamed far, in the century since the 1890s, among the policy papers, economics textbooks, legal codes, and in the popular mindset. The hero of economic rationality has even voyaged to all the disciplines and founded colonies there.

A second theme, which may seem unrelated (o bind these themes, great stringer of men!) is an opposing tug on the formation of character under capitalism. This is the tug of alienation. I take this theme primarily from Marx, not only because I think his construction of alienation in the 1840s supplies us with a perfect tool for understanding why capitalism is peculiarly oppressive, but also because, in Capital, he produced a picture of capitalist society that allows us to do nuance: for alienation varies according to the level in which the economic agent is placed. The alienation of the producers has taken the greatest share of attention, but the level of the producers, if we trust the (Engels edited) second and third books of Capital, is different from the level of the agents of circulation. One of my hypotheses is that the agents of circulation, which have become much more numerous than the producers in the developed economies, suffer from a different form of alienation, one that incorporates not only the alienation of the assembly line worker but, as well, the alienation that arises from the remove from production. Although Marx does not predict that the agents of circulation will become preponderant as the industrial system of production evolves, one can credibly draw on Marx’s insights to understand this story.

Foregrounded in this network of speculation, I want to look at a certain lineage within modernity, which inherited the reticular wisdom of the moralistes of the early modern period and transformed it into the clerk’s Dao. The clerks of literature, the clerks of the arts, figure here both as the makers of characters in which the stress and Sturm of capitalism is registered and as characters themselves. Indra’s net, here, becomes James’ In the Cage.

And then the third theme. For in tracing out these tendencies, or more frankly, creating this Begriffsroman, where concepts are the plot elements, I am struck by how the great theoreticians of modernization (Marx, Simmel, Weber, Foucault, etc.) have invested the story with an absolute sweep. The story is that of the iron cage – cages again! – in which all forms of archaic economic activity are ruined and buried under the system of economic rationality, until rationality becomes synonymous with self-advantage. The narrative, here, is epic, but I think it leaves out everyday life, that unpurged primitive remnant. When we plunge into the worlds of work or home, when we look at the now endless media net in which we all struggle, when, in short, we plunge into the negotium and otium, the public sphere and the private, we find the capillary work of earlier forms of exchange and reciprocity still as active as ever. They appear now as the favor you do a friend, now as the barbecue cookout, now as the shared task, now as mental illness and night sweats – they appear all over the place, barter and gift, earmarked money and piggy banks. All the archaic forms that bow to homo economicus return, secondary elaborations that spring up even in the most economically ‘rational’ institutions. This does not seem to me to be an accident, a feature of incomplete modernization, but the persistent, human supplement. The collective vision of the alienated clerks is of a world in which that supplement is extinguished.

These are my threads.


Sarah said...

Yes! Those 'capillaries', as you call them, are everywhere, doing the real work of the economy. I would even argue that they are not capillaries, but instead a whole parallel system of blood circulation.

I suspect Capitalism has always been the system parasite here, the actual system - the ancient system of 'deep' reciprocity and trade- being pasted over with a veneer of monetary exchanges. This was facilitated until the 1970's by having a large portion of the female population actively engaged in this secondary system and excluded from the 'main' one.

Now, with most adult women engaged in the money-making world, we are having to peer under the veneer and find the real, working economy - before the false one leeches away all the blood from the system.

roger said...

That is an amazing insight, Sarah!
Do you know the economic sociologist Vivian Zelizer's The Social meaning of money - a study of earmarking, pin money, etc? It is a great foray into looking beneath the veneer, as you put it.

What you are pointing to - the engendered structure of the formation of character under capitalism - is something I have an incomplete grasp on. I really have to think about this, though, because I think one of the great historic changes is, exactly, this entry of women into the 'marketplace' in the epoch of circulation work.

michael- said...

wow, Roger, your posts continue to enlighten and spark so many new thoughts for me - thanks!

Sarah said...

Roger- No- but thank you for pointing me to another resource for ideas on this. It would be good to know more about the historical context of these concepts. That's why your discussions of Cousin Pons and the fan are so valuable.

One of the things that's so infuriating about the reduction of markets to a mere mechanism (which, at the same time, is given God-like properties which it is blasphemy to interfere with) is that so much of the structure of the economy in the West was deliberately built on a deeply moral and religious social sense.

The very idea of fixed prices, for instance, arose because England's dissenters, shut out of most universities and higher office, made their livings from business and had an idea almost identical to the Buddhist 'right livelihood'.

Quaker shopkeepers in particular began to feel that charging different prices for the same item was wrong. They began to set their prices based on cost plus a margin which would afford them a modest, but dignified living. This had the advantage that families could send their children into these shops to buy items without worrying that they would be cheated- thus saving the time and labor of the more experienced and productive members of the family.

It is truly bizarre how this most moral of sentiments from the early days of Capitalism has been twisted around to provide a god-like rationale for venality, oppression of the weak and outright theft.