Monday, May 23, 2016

How Capitalism Organizes Our Desires (Journal Post)

[From October 30, 2008]

I’ve been feeling pretty off lately, both philosophically and in life in general. I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot, but I can’t quite put my finger on just what it is that I’m thinking (or not thinking) and feeling (or not feeling). For one, I feel completely uncreative, and I feel like I have absolutely nothing to say; I feel like I’m becoming more and more stupid, incapable of insight or expression. Maybe it’s not stupidity though; perhaps it’s a lack of things to think about, things to say. Perhaps I’ve allowed the world to be too transparent, too unproblematic, for too long. Sometimes things seem so obvious to me that I stop wondering about them. Or maybe it is that my cynicism about political change, moral improvement, and cultural flourishing has greatly limited the scope of what I even think to care about. 
Espana Holy toledo
Puente de San Martín, Toledo, Spain
Why should art matter? Or better, why does art matter to me? Why do I read fiction? Why do I care about who the next President of the United States is? I’m reading One-Dimensional Man by Marcuse right now, and it just seems naïve. Marcuse argues that the form of instrumental rationality of developed capitalism completely determines our form of life and desires such that all opposition to the (oppressive) system is taken in and converted to a desire that functions within the system. In other words, capitalism organizes our desires, creates them, in such a way that the system will continue to function with the smallest amount of hindering unrest. I am fully willing to argue against and fight the place that capitalism puts people, especially those people who live in poverty because of the economic system’s inability (or unwillingness) to equitably allocate resources. But I am completely unwilling to get worked up about capitalism having organized my (and society’s) desires. All I can say is that of course capitalism has created, shifted, and reorganized our value investments. How could it not? Is not every social, economic, and political system constitutive of, if not the particular desires of individuals themselves, at least the field of possible desires. Could we even desire without a culture that includes systems of exchange and will inevitably have power differences and interests? Is it not power that is productive of desire itself? How could we desire anything more than food and sex, there is not a community which depends, in part, on exchange? And then, is capitalism, in terms of what it does to the field of desires, really so much different than any other past configuration of exchange and culture?

I don’t know what the answers to these questions are. Surely capitalism configures the field of desires differently than other social/economic structures in some ways, at least in their specificity. I suppose one way in which I am critical of so-called critical theory is in its seeming implicit assumption that a social organization such as capitalism produces that which necessarily conforms and preserves. Isn’t it entirely possible that some of what capitalism produces in the necessarily related fields of desires and action are completely heterogonous to the function of the system itself. This may be a really bad example, but take an animal’s own waste products (literal shit), and imagine two environments. In one environment there’s nowhere for the waste to go; it enters the food and water supply of the animal without being fully filtered by any organism, and so the animal is poisoned and cannot survive in that environment. That animal will be replaced by one who can. In the other environment, the animals waste is carried away and broken down such that it does not enter the food or water supply. In this situation the animal can survive. The point is that a social organization produces effects to be sure, but it depends on other factors (I would think) whether those effects that are produced hinder the organization’s further functioning, hinder the organization’s functioning, or play no role either way. Nevertheless, capitalism does produce a field of discourse and possible desires. For me, the question (one I am not answering very well right now) is one of how to live within this structured field. In what directions are my desires and discourses going to go?   

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