Liberalism is Capitalism, or What is Freedom?

The liberal state — the birth of the people, of "freedom," of fraternity — came with the beheading of the king.  And who did this beheading? The bourgeoisie: they wanted a piece of the pie.  So the end of hierarchy which kept wealth for itself came at the hands of the bourgeoisie who wanted some of that wealth.  The liberal revolutions of the 18th century, then, were essentially capitalist revolutions.

Liberalism and capitalism have always been the same thing.  Consider all the so-called liberation movements.  What are they about? They are about creating consumers.

The most devastating fact that I learned in the documentary, The Corporation, was that the rise of corporation came out of the 14th Amendment, which nominally granted citizenship and property rights to blacks.  But the overwhelming majority of cases heard under this 14th Amendment were corporations — previously recognized as persons — arguing for the right to do business, to own property.

Do you understand what I'm saying?  The exact moment of the so-called liberation of slaves is the exact moment of the rise of a new kind of economic slavery.  The Civil War was not about the inhumanity of slavery.  It was about the inefficiency of slavery.  Because a slave, besides costing money to house and feed, is not a consumer.

Now, I do not mean to downplay the cruelty of slavery.  I am, by no means, arguing for slavery.  I am just pointing out that the language of the "humane" happens to coincide, one to one, with the demands of capitalism. 

Take feminism. I know it is a word that means a lot of different things. But I think we can agree: something called feminism argued for, and won, the right for women to work.  Again: the liberal cause of liberation coincides, one to one, with the demands of capitalism — not just for labor but for empowered consumers. Which is to say, women may always have been consumers but now they have their own money to spend even more, consume even more.

Why is it that both sides of the American political spectrum — which is actually quite narrow — celebrated the so-called Arab Spring?  Doesn't that make anyone suspicious?  It's because the liberal cause of liberation and the capitalist demand for more labor and, even more, consumers are exactly the same demands.

Am I saying that I am against such liberation — of slaves, of women, of the Arabic states?  Of course not.  But I am saying: What is liberation?  What do we mean? What do we actually want from this life?  What we call freedom actually means the freedom to consume.  But consumption, today, has come to demand a kind of slavery.

I see all the folks lined up every morning to get on their bus to Google, to Genentech, to Apple, to Yahoo.  They are bussed in, fed, then bussed home to a condo or apartment that eats up most of their salary. The rest of their earnings go towards buying cars and and shopping at Whole Foods.  And then their paychecks run out so they use credit cards.  Which now means they are indebted and must work just to pay off the thugs at Chase. (When the mob does this, it's criminal.)

What makes this new kind of labor so great for capitalism is this infinitely fast circuit of production and consumption: we pay you to buy our shit. Which means we make all our money back and then some.

And you think you're free.


The Terms of the Discussion

Entering into a conversation with someone you don't know is a complex process.  You size them up: How do they make sense of things? And how will I figure out how the fuck they make sense of things?

The insidious thing about the news — about public discourse — is it plays an enormous role in how we make sense of other people.

To wit, I find myself, more often than I would like, in conversations where people casually make use of the words "Democrat" and "Republican" as if these were meaningful in and of themselves.  Which, to me, they aren't. And then I find myself thinking : "Hmn, this person makes sense of things according to terms that seem to be prefabricated."

I will admit that I have a prejudice for those who make up their own terms. Or at least use terms I've never heard of. (Yes, I ended in a preposition. Which is just fine with me, thank you.)  I wish I could enter into all conversations assuming that all parties involved were interested in exposing, and rewriting, the assumptions of the conversation.  I wish the terms of discourse were part of the discourse.

It's very difficult — for me, at least — to navigate the social when this is not the case.  I never know how to respond when people so knowingly make use of terms like Republican.  Do I just nod along? Do I ask them what they mean (that seems like a disastrous route)? Do I change the conversation (yes!)?

I remember years ago there was some new Star Trek series and the big news was that the captain was a woman. This was deemed revolutionary, at least in some small way. And no doubt it was.  But I kept thinking: Why a woman? Or a man? Or an African American? Why not an ironist? Now that's an underrepresented population!

If we collectively embraced the will to individual terms of discussion; if we all agreed to put aside the newspapers that speak as if there were mass agreement — and in so doing, create it; if we all agreed that thinking and speaking differently were a good thing; well, then, I think this life would be a lot more enjoyable.  At least for ironists like me. 


The Right Place

I walked into a party last night where, tangentially, I knew only one person.  It was one of these new lofts in San Francisco — modern and cool, it seems, but like an LA hotel that's trying too hard.

Just walking down the block to the front door of the complex threw me off — these too tall buildings forging a claustrophobic tunnel nestled next to the freeway.  I immediately felt uncomfortable. The architects and planners had done a poor job; they had only focused on building their lofts, stuffing them with people, and skipping out. It seemed quite obvious that no one considered the space.

As I walked into the loft, the party, I found that people were huddled at the pass into the space. Which I found incredibly disconcerting — the space above (it's a loft after all) encroached while the far wall of the living space seemed oddly close.  The flow was stilted, awkward, uncomfortable. 

I am used to San Francisco living spaces, the way flats and apartments distribute space. So when I walk in a new place, even though I can't see the whole space, I can imagine it. But walking in this new loft, I had no idea how the space worked: the off-screen loomed heavy on me. It was like being in a Lynch film, that disconcerting feeling of not knowing how things connect, how space connects. Think about that for a moment: being inside, in a living space, and not knowing how the space connects with itself, where it goes, how it goes. It's creepy.

I excused myself from the entree greetings and sought a better place to be, a space that felt welcoming, open, ripe with opportunity but still a local home of a sort.  In a relative sense, I sought what Carlos Castaneda calls a site of power.

When Don Juan walks Carlos into the chaparral and stops to talk, he asks Carlos to pick the right spot to sit. You can't sit anywhere. Different sites are, well, different. And hence have difference affects, different effects, are different nodes within the flow. A site can be an eddy, and abyss, an embrace, a conduit, a trap. 

We all know this to some degree.  We like certain seats in a movie theater; we return to the same seats in a classroom or train; we arrange our living spaces just so.  What is that determines our choices? And what happens when we pay attention to such things at every moment?

I believe there is an assumption that place doesn't matter — not really.  After all, we are people! We are sovereign over space! It's absurd to think that space dictates my mood! I dictate my mood!

But it turns out we are part of world. We go with the world. And space is such a fundamental component of that.  Whether it's walking down the street, sitting on a couch, in a restaurant, in a park, it matters where we are.  If you sit somewhere and it feels bad, move for fuck's sake.

The world is an ever fluctuating flow of affects and energies, pollens and powers. Just think how much shit flows through this world and has flowed for thousands of millennia, how much ill feeling, disease of every sort, ugly, menacing forces. You don't want to get caught in an ill constituted trajectory.

So next time you're at a party and things don't feel right, move. 


Marriage, Infinity, & the Everyday

I got married young for my class and generation — 27.  At the time, I was terribly enamored of Kierkegaard (I still am but, alas, with some broader understanding). And so I imagined — nay, I believed — that to marry was to make an internal movement towards the infinite and back again.

What I mean is that, for starters, it didn't really matter who I was marrying.  I know that sounds callous but that's not how I mean it. What I mean is that the movement into marriage — for my 27 year old self — was not a movement to another person per se but an agreement with another person to have the relationship detour through the infinite.  The finitude of this or that person was irrelevant.  From a purely practical perspective, most of the women I've dated were more or less the same — smart, cute, funny, educated, sexual.  I could have married any one of them.

Except that I was not yet ready to make the internal move I had to make — that is, to the infinite and back.  When I was, I married the woman standing in front of me.  This is not to say I didn't love her.  On the contrary, I was totally in love — and propelled to make that movement, that impossible movement.  The act, however, had little to do with her and everything to do with me, with my existential fortitude. 

What do I mean about moving through the infinite? When dating, we find ourselves enmeshed in the everyday, in the utter, aching banality of life — eating and shitting and sleeping and cleaning and working. This is not say there is not joy in the everyday. But to exist in the finitude of the everyday is, well, soul crushing (to me, at least).  And so when a problem arises — you can't stand the way the other sleeps or smells or chews or talks to your friends — you have a real problem.

Now refract that relationship through the infinite.  Are you going to remain angry over such things forever?  Well, no. The everyday banality of this or that complaint compared to the infinite is nothing. And so rather than leaving, you stay. You overcome that complaint.

This is to say, you move from the finite — the way she chews — to the infinite and then back again. And suddenly her chewing is not so annoying. In fact, you can barely hear it over the exquisite hum of the infinite.

Move forward 14 years and I am no longer married.  How, then, do I stand towards that movement I made?  Did I forgo infinity?

I don't think so. I believe I've redistributed the relationship between the finite and the infinite.  I want everyday to be exquisite. And if not exquisite then at least bullshit free. This no doubt demands a certain refraction through the infinite, a certain understanding that traffic or an asshole at work or a shitty date or an upset stomach are little compared to the infinity of the cosmos.  On the other hand, I've embraced a radical practicality: I want to do the things I want to do, here and now, in this finite world.  And this means I don't want to be married anymore.

I still firmly believe that marriage is an act one makes — with another person, of course — but it is finally a private act, an internal movement.  There is no such thing as "I just can't find the right person — I guess I'm unlucky." That's horseshit. If you really want to get married, then you have to make that impossible but actual internal movement.

But you don't have to get married. There are other ways of distributing love, sex, finitude and infinity.  I'll get back to you when I know more about them. 


Seeing Concepts Seeing

An image is a strange thing.

It is something we see, sure. There it is! Look at that image!

But it is not just an object, not just something that is seen. An image is a seeing, as well, a way of perceiving the world. So when I look at, say, a painting of Van Gogh's sunflower, I'm not just seeing a sunflower; I'm not just seeing Van Gogh's painting: I am seeing this way of seeing a sunflower.

When I look at those insane sunflowers, I am suddenly privy to an entire style of making sense of the world. I am seeing a metabolism at work, the way sunflowers and light and paint and canvas went in a system — let's call that system Van Gogh — and came out the other side.

But it's not just that I'm seeing this metabolism as if it were at a distance: I am experiencing that world view, literally seeing the world that way. Suddenly, I am Laura Mars and my eyes are Van Gogh's.

Now, I want to say that a concept is an image in this sense: it is not just something we see but is itself a seeing. This seeing is part of me, no doubt, but like the eyes in Laura Mars' face, this concept travels between people. As it goes, it literally remakes the world, redistributes it, makes sense of it anew according to its logics.

We make concepts much in the way we make any image such as a painting or photograph. We gather elements together and assemble them just so. This is to say, then, that concepts don't come prefrabricated; they need to be made (most do; some come prefab as cliches, just as images often come as cliches, too).


Becoming Inhuman

We — me, you, everyone we see and know — are enmeshed in various and diverse networks. Or, rather, we are at once enmeshed and constituted by these networks — social, temporal, planetary, biological, affective, traffic.

By which I mean that we are quite literally made up of all these things — not just our genitilia but our notions of genitilia; not just our bodies but the networks that make it and run through it, from blood and nerves to air and food; not just the environment but all the elaborate and ever-changing dynamics of the weather and the sun (everyday I drive from the fog to the sun and back and with each transition, I am transformed); not just our jobs but the global flows of capital and technology.

But if you look at movies and TV, we certainly privilege one network over others: the network we call civilization. That is, other people. I, for one, used to be quite taken with the human condition — with character studies and portraits, with human history, with how people operate.

And while this is of course important — I feel silly having to say that — I now like to explore how I'm made up of the non-human. The weather, for instance, or the taste of tequila or the stature of a cactus or the poise of a tulip; the swell of an ocean or the tumult of a hurricane; the expanse of the sky, the tilt of a dog's curiosity, the wit of a ginkgo tree (take a good look at gingkos: they can be quite hilarious). This is to say, I see myself in things other than humans.

I do not mean to sound misanthropic. Clearly, my relationship to humanity is privileged. But I find a tremendous liberty as well as wealth of information from positioning humanity as just another network. So rather than my self being intersubjective, it becomes interobjective — or something to that effect.

Or perhaps we can call this identity chiasmatic: I am wound up with the world just as it is wound up with me. And so it is never self-identical at all. It is always marbled. Such, in fact, are the very conditions of perception: in seeing the world, I become (with) the world.

And so while I no doubt come to constitute myself in my relations with others, I'd like to expland this others to include the entire cosmos, visible and invisible.


Feeling Real

Let's assume this: the self is not just multiple but in a state of perpetual flux (we all fluctuate with greater or lesser intensity and speed).

And this: the self is not hermetic but is always and already constituted by "external" forces — the self is run through with networks that exceed you and me — gender, class, race, sexuality, looks (place in what Michel Houellebecq calls the sexual hierarchy — I fucking love that), and so on.

This is all to say that there is no one self, no one mode of being, of we can say: "That! That's the real me. All that other stuff? Not so much." It is all you — or me, as the case may be. When I'm home alone surfing pantyhose porn? That's me. When I'm drooling and muttering as I sleep? Me. When I'm nervous and blushing and stammering as I try to flirt? Me, too. When I'm being a jealous, passive aggressive asshole? Hate to say it but, yep, that's me. When, despite being 41 years old, I'm a petulant prick when around my parents? C'est moi.

And yet there are times when we feel — in ourselves and in others — that we're being real (or know we're being phony). But what does real and phony mean here? After all, everything we do is real. And everything we do is who we are. So what makes doing one thing real and another not?

Well, as we assumed from the start, there is no fixed point by which to judge the realness of our being. We can't size up this self along the measuring rod of the real self. Everything is in motion; every state is just another state — the so-called measuring rod, too.

I want to say, then, that this state of feeling real (or not) is the result of a certain aesthetic reaction to a state of resonance. This is to say, the great teem of my being — we are a complex of systems digestive, emotional, coronary, affective, nervous and so on — this network of networks can sometimes harmonize in such a way that there is a kind of order (but a strange and precarious order).

Kant says that the beautiful is a state of perpetual agitation of the faculties — we cannot understand per se, cannot put the experience in the a conceptual bucket — but in such a way that there is discretion and proportion. When discretion and proportion are torn asunder, we enter what Kant calls the sublime. Ah, but the Kantian beautiful is, well beautiful: a state of flux that enjoys some kind of limit and proportion. I love that.

And that, I believe, is what I'm suggesting about this feeling of being real — it is a kind of pleasing resonance in which our complex of systems are working together to create precisely this state.

This makes the act of feeling real a) an aesthetic experience; and b) an act of systems maintenance.

But it's not an act of trying to maintain one state (which I sometimes fear is the Buddhist goal: to always have one state. But I don't know fuck all about Buddhism so forget I said that). This state of feeling real may, later, feel like it was phony. So this "real" state is not one state but is itself different states at different times (and that themselves are internally variegated).