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Saturday, June 19, 2021

There's no there, there - some thoughts about substitution


Anyone who reads continental philosophy or the philosophical essayists will soon be impressed by the almost obsessive mooning over the concept of absence.

This has no parallel in Anglophone philosophy – absence is at most treated as a simple description of a physical phenomenon. Jack doesn’t show up for the exam – he is absent. There is nothing here for the analytics (or post-analytics) to get moony about, or so they say.

Nevertheless, there is something strange about the absence of absence in Anglophone philosophy. The unexamined master-trope of that philosophy is substitution. Surely it if were examined, understanding substitution should encourage us to look at absence more closely.

Substitution implies that a place is preserved – in logical or physical or social space – that is filled with one or another variable. In a sense, the presence of the variable isn’t total, since it isn’t identical to the place. One can find another variable to put in that place.

The latest metaphor in the analytic tradition to designate this is “candidate”. A candidate – whether as an explanation or as a particular – is always being considered as the solution to some problem. Whether it is materialist accounts of cognitive states, theories of the reduction of the biological to the physical, etc., etc., the papers I edit in philosophy are built upon comparing one ‘candidate’ with another.

Although analytic philosophers go about closely peering at language with the fervor of a myopic seamstress threading a needle, they are curiously indifferent to their own use of language – so I have not read any account of how suddenly the candidate metaphor appeared in all the right journals. It is easy to see, though, that it is a metaphor that tells us something about how absence is thought of here. The implication is that the “place” where substitution takes or can take place is like an office. It is a position created by a political system. The politics may only be bureaucratic – it may be a position in a firm, in which the candidates compete against each other without seeing each other, before a hiring person or board. Or it may be a political system in which they compete against each other consciously, before a voting constituency. The main thing is that the competition is about filling the position. The binary in place is between the filled place and the empty place – or potentially empty place. These are pre-eminently relative states – the dialectic between them is deflected onto the system which determines them, and which has the power to simply get rid of the place – or multiply it.

The metaphysics of substitution writ large would tell us a great deal about the anthropology of  the capitalist era – or perhaps I should say industrialist era, by which I mean the era marked by the fact that the treadmill of production achieved a velocity that allowed societies to escape from the Malthusian trap. This was a perilous escape, indeed. If the notion of substitution – the notion that ultimately place is a placeholder, forever and ever – had not been so woven into the thought of the populace, it might never have happened. I believe that this weaving was achieved by literacy itself, or perhaps, a more modest claim, that the spread of literacy was the pre-condition to loosening the peasant grasp on the unique and the eternal – of the possession of land, of the relations between members of the family, of the relations between men in the polity, of the relation of the created to the creator. That chain of being, which was a chain indeed, the heaviest chain, was lifted, gradually, by the notion that all relations are between placeholders, rather than places. Place itself is nowhere. There’s no there, there, is the motto of capitalism, forever. Actually, I should say: it is the motto of all contenders for political-economic dominance in the modern era. Although, to appease the peasant spirit that inhabits all of us, this dissolution has been amply camouflaged.

To continue this thought: As every amateur of economics knows, given the usual fictions of perfect markets with zero transaction costs, there would be no need for money. Thus, the hired, petty visionaries of the capitalist system have devised a model of that system that does not distinguish money from barter – a most embarrassing situation.
Whether Marx did any better is a much disputed question. Keynes, on the other hand, does seem to have grasped the nature of money more fully than others. In the General Theory, he wrote that “the second differentia of money is that it has an elasticity of substitution equal, or nearly equal, to zero; which means that as the exchange value of money rises, there is no tendency to substitute some other factor for it; - except, perhaps, to some trifling extent, where the money-commodity is also used in manufacture or the arts. This follows from the peculiarity of money that is utility is solely derived from its exchange value, to that the two rise and fall pari passu, with the result that as the exchange value of money rises there is no motive or tendency, as in the case of rent-factors, to substitute some other factor for it.”
What this brilliantly points to is that money is the socially materialized form of the principle of substitution itself, and in this way, the money system does compete against the barter system. The latter, of course, is far from a primitive form of the economy – it is, in fact, in millionfold daily use in the U.S.A. Whenever a man says to a woman, I went to see x film with you, now you have to watch x tv show with me; whenever a child says to another child, I gave you half of my M and Ms, now you have to let me play with your game; etc., the barter system is alive and well. It is an adhoc system of socialization, and it is certainly as important as money. The competition between the money system and the barter system also goes on a millionfold daily. At a certain point, one ‘feels’ the threat of the money system to our identifying social acts of barter, which is why such rule of thumb adages about not loaning money to relatives and the like float on our breaths.
But more to my present purpose – the advent of the money system as one in which the substitution principle enters as the unsubstitutable moment was felt to have something alchemical or uncanny about it. This is captured in Faust the second part. And it was also a significant dimension in the discourse about Freedom that became so important in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. On the negative side, there is no substitute – no alternative – to the principle of subsitution. On the positive side, this frees us from the bondage of the various, infinite and intimate forms of the barter system. Simmel, in the Philosophy of Money, makes a crucial distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to”. He uses the example of a schoolboy who, graduating from the gymnasium, steps into the freedom of his college days – a freedom that is “quite empty and almost unbearable” – and so quickly throws himself into other activities, for instance student organizations, that enforce a whole new set of rules of behavior upon him – in contrast to a businessman, who works to receive freedom from a regulation because, once that regulation is dissolved, he can expand his business in a certain way – the “freedom to” is defined by expectations that will concretely materialize upon the moment of ‘liberation”, while the ‘freedom from” is defined by the lack of any clear expectation beyond the point of liberation.

“In brief, every act of liberation shows a specific proportion between the emphasis and extension of the overcome circumstance and that of the one gained.”

Introducing the principle of substitution as the universal rule of the economic sphere does create freedom from, but – as Simmel points out – it also creates a certain alienation - our modern sadness, from which we cannot get away. There's no substitute for substitution - and thus we are cracked a little. The other name for substitution when it is dominant is: the death drive. 


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