I had a discouraging day yesterday, surveying the supposedly coordinate pieces of The Tears of Homo Economicus and asking myself, where’s the coordination? Jesus. My original idea was simply to carve a small book out of my Human Limit project, but over the last four months I’ve made certain small and major changes in the potential book, all of which are driven by my flinching the stylistic norms native to the humanities, in which thesis, argument and example unroll with the monological inflexibility of an alarm clock going off. I am not that kind of writer. The demon of the lateral is always at my ear.
In the preface to his dissertation, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Benjamin compared the nineteenth century compulsion to write within the form of a system to the original energies of the tractate, which, developing at the same time as the mosaic in the West, shared with the mosaic and the stained glass window the same principle of representation: a number of pieces – which congealed, in the tractate’s case, around certain authoritative or sacred citations – were arranged so that their systematic unity only appeared in juxtaposition, which is to say that the unity is extruded onto some external observer. What this means is that the pieces, seen individually and from within, may seem to be little complete bubbles in themselves, little snow globes, but that they are really parts of a grander schema and their meanings are not self contained after all, but partial. The whole meaning supervenes only when the all of the parts are juxtaposed. And all of the parts are juxtaposed when the demon of the lateral ceases to whisper in your ear.
Although cultural historians conventionally ascribe an organic unity to the Middle Ages, in reality, this form of unity-in-pieces is completely mechanical. What I like about the tractate is that it comprehends the essay and the aphorism. It builds not towards the muted shock of the logical conclusion, but instead towards the naked shock of the ‘line’- that is, the quote, the citation, in which ‘proof’ (the prestige of which derives from the institutionalization of truth) is transformed into the beautiful gesture (the prestige of which derives from the anarchy of individual experience). This is the dream of all clerks, all those who sit at desks, all the white collar crowd, all the agents of circulation, whether they admit it, or rather, act on it, or not. It is their clerkly terror and glory.
So I talked to A. about this. She’d been telling me that I should talk to her about what was on my mind.
I said this, approximately. At first, when I was considering this book simply as a sort of mythography following the figure of homo economicus, it seemed simple. I would ask why the term appeared in the 1890s, and then relate it to the turn in economics that was coordinate with the beginning of the consumerist phase of capitalism – which I interpret as the beginning of the modernist distancing from production, on the same order as the distancing from nature. I would point to how this figure, which admittedly describes only a few of the characteristics of any real person, has been used to create policy, and thus imposed as a model on populations that are humanly resistant to it. I would then use the notion of matrixes of exchange to explore the continuing existence of ‘non’ rational forms of exchange, with the idea that these are not non-rational at all, and that the viability of capitalist society depends on the fact that there are a diversity of exchange systems.
But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do something a little more fun. So my second version of this project was to emphasize character formation under capitalism. Returning to the thesis that modernization has occurred under the sign of two removes, I thought I’d use Marx’s notion of the agent of circulation – the clerk, the salesman, the lower white collar employee – as the social niche in which the figure of the homo economicus has the greatest impact and, at the same time, creates the greatest repulsion. The logic of circulation is the logic of demand – which is how the organs of the media originally branch off and become the productive shadow of this segment of the total circulation of commodities. Establishing this link between the agent of media and the agent of circulation is important, as the quantitative character-shaping force of economic man and his counterparts in capitalist society are a result of the quantitatively greater penetration of media into the private life.
Thus, the essays in The Tears of Homo Economicus will cover a great deal of literary and sociological material, bathed in my associations as a reader and dumbfounded citizen of my time, in the service of a relatively small number of theses. Somehow, this should be do-able.