On capitalism and Ingmar Bergman's leather jacket
On cultural hegemony #2 (I think)
There’s this game show over here which I’ve been indirectly exposed to on a couple of occasions. Its entire idea is for contestants to guess at the market value of a set of items.
Smiling celebrities, nervous gambling and, I’m sure, great marketing opportunities. We are shown everything from modern art to Ingmar Bergman’s black leather jacket, and the quintessential property that contextually trumps every other aspect of the objects displayed is, of course, how much they’re “worth”.
The show is probably the best example of the radical fetishization of exchange value under capitalism that I have ever encountered.
One core insight of Theodor Adorno was how the ascension of instrumental reason (as a late stage of the suffusion of technological civilization), i.e. the sort of rational interaction with, and interpretation of, the world, whose end goal is the domination of nature and the securing of tangible material effects, also inevitably entails the subsumption of use value under exhange value.
Production under capitalism is for exchange rather than use, which in some fundamental way is the basic pattern of the entire social order, rooted in a core structural theme of technological civilization itself.
(still from Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage)
The intrinsic aspects of everything, the properties and relations which give everything its social, phenomenal and historical particularity, thus become dominated by the abstractions of exchange-value and the associated conceptual categories and social processes. The normalization of this aberrant perspective contains the seeds of everything from the demise of essentialism in the mechanistic worldview to the digital metaverse colonization and the “green”, transhumanist, growthless austerity capitalism in our near future. Of specialization. Alienation. Secularization.
In beginning to realize this, there’s a very tangible temptation to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
A criticism of not only instrumental rationality but of reason in general, shared by poststructuralists and the Frankfurt school alike, is namely that the entire order of rational conceptualization in this very way inevitably replaces concrete things with bloodless abstractions and universals, with an inherent tendency towards dominating, colonizing and emptying out the real world.
But it’s rather that technological civilization in general and capitalism in particular reifies and alienates the very universals themselves. The social order turns them into one-dimensional shadows, deformed ghosts pressed into service for reproducing the master discourse of exchange value.
Indeed, even the real abstractions as such (i.e. the universals) have a rich, tangible character. A discernible phenomenal uniqueness. Truth is a universal. Or the principle of identity. But so are fuchsia and chartreuse. So is the smell of roses. And they can all be known and loved intimately.
Ingmar Bergman’s leather jacket was priced at $25,000, I think. It was quite small, fitting the relatively petite female show host perfectly, nowadays apparently being occasionally displayed at parties by one of the director’s distant relatives.
A very instructive example of the “concrete particularity” of a universal is the principle of identity. The fact that everything is identical to itself.
This is really the most abstract universal aside from the fundamental distinction between being and nothingnaess, yet can actually be seen immediately in our very concrete lived experience. Take two non-identical objects, such as the C-minor key and your mom (or e.g. a triangle and the color red). Then assume you have two instances or copies of each, such that you hear the C-minor key from a piano and from an organ at the same time, and that you have two photographs of your mother, side by side. Two separate pairs.
The fact that you can identify the two instances as in a formal sense the same thing, is because each are identical to their “copy”. And since the two pairs have absolutely nothing in common with each other, we also know that self-identity isn’t just some strange particular that happens to adhere to these two objects and not necessarily to anything else. It goes deeper than that. Since self-identity is evident between absolutely non-identical pairs that share no attributes whatsoever, this universal must be present at a more fundamental level of metaphysics, i.e. self-identity is to be found with anything that actually exists.
Yet even this most abstract universal, upon which rest the foundation of everything from logic to mathematics to the principle of causality, is something you can know at a truly intimate level. It’s not just an anemic law that governs a clockwork universe - the principle of identity is a thing of robust beauty that makes itself known in the tangible patterns and relations of everyday life. It’s a living truth that can be immediately encountered in all its strange quiddity, and not just some ephemeral, “law-like regularity” that’s negatively inferred.
Here, in all its questionable glory, actually lies the key error of the entire modern project from its medieval roots onward, i.e. the reification and alienation of the very categories of thought themselves. And the quite wonderful thing is that the error can be clearly seen and corrected by any conscious human being by just observing the real world around them.
When I was younger and walked home to my parents’ house during early summer mornings, intensely bright, warm, non-nights of the subarctic, I used to looked at the still-empty houses, streets, driveways, lawns and patches of trees, and imagine the inhabitants. The people living there, being there, during summers now past, yet which hopefully also remained in the future. Children playing on driveways, riding skateboards to friends, dogs rolling around in the grass. Everything deeply contextualized and alive, rooted in its sensuous particularity and real lived relationships.
(a street from my hometown painted by Pablo Castilla. Oil on canvas. My grandmother used to babysit her sister’s kids in the pink house on the left during the early 1940s)
There’s a popular 80s hit song that for some reason touches on this very same notion for me. Calling to mind the complex, immediate and living rootedness and relationality that I still vividly remember characterized life three or four decades ago. When people were present. When the house was full of real human beings, doing real things, and the level of technological intermediacy merely consisted of perhaps a music cassette or a movie. Talking to a friend over the landline. Maybe playing video games together. Always and everything together.
Now, things are mostly empty. Devoid of the tangible magic of their relational interconnectedness that affords life and vibrant meaning to the very least and most insignificant prop.
(Afford: Middle English aforthen, iforthen, Old English geforthian. To further, accomplish. Now just a reference to the ability to purchase.)
Somehow fading into a nondescript obscurity that’s a bit less than real. Receding from actuality back into mere potentiality.
By their design, the central organizing principles and practices of consumer culture perpetuate an ‘existential vacuum’ that is a precursor to demoralization. This inner void is often experienced as chronic and inescapable boredom, which is not surprising. Despite surface appearances to the contrary, the consumer age is deathly boring. Boredom is caused, not because an activity is inherently boring, but because it is not meaningful to the person.
In the past, our understanding of demoralization was limited to specific extreme situations, such as debilitating physical injury, terminal illness, prisoner-of-war camps, or anti-morale military tactics. But there is also a cultural variety that can express itself more subtly and develop behind the scenes of normal everyday life under pathological cultural conditions such as we have today. This culturally generated demoralization is nearly impossible to avoid for the modern ‘consumer’.
Rather than a depressive disorder, demoralization is a type of existential disorder associated with the breakdown of a person’s ‘cognitive map’. It is an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or sources of need fulfilment. The world loses its credibility, and former beliefs and convictions dissolve into doubt, uncertainty and loss of direction. Frustration, anger and bitterness are usual accompaniments, as well as an underlying sense of being part of a lost cause or losing battle. The label ‘existential depression’ is not appropriate since, unlike most forms of depression, demoralization is a realistic response to the circumstances impinging on the person’s life (“The Demoralized Mind”. New Internationalist 2016).
Right now, there’s this huge push in our part of the country to erect “sustainable heavy industry”. We’re going to be at the “forefront of the green transition”, not any actual transition, mind you, but rather the consolidation of capitalism into something leaner and meaner. And ostensibly greener.
Yeah, there’s a supposedly “green steel mill” being built around here, as well as a huge EV battery factory. Forests are being cut down to make room for ostensibly efficient and sustainable wind farms that’s going to feed everything (you go and research the EROI of wind power and the entire supply chain behind a tower. Plus we don’t really have much wind here).
All in the name of preserving growth against a backdrop of scarcity. All under the spell of exchange-value abstractions and the myth of infinite Faustian expansion. The society as such can’t really think outside the framework of Enlightenment’s irresistable progress in the domination of nature.
So we’re going to have to think for it.
But don’t worry. We can do this. There really are no ordinary people.
It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
You have never talked to a mere mortal.
Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.
But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses (C. S. Lewis (1941). The Weight of Glory.).