The (holy) Spirit of Capitalism

05Oct07

/1/ – Figuring the field

There is a series of small confluences that caused this post. The first is the (seemingly) rarely discussed issue of the concept of ‘Handelgiest’ or trade spirit. This is the uglier or perhaps just contextualized version of Hegel’s master slave relationship. As Paul Gilroy discusses in his text The Black Atlantic, Hegel seems to emphatically praise the concept of European colonialism as necessary to the general progress of humanity. Whether this is a necessary rung on the ladder towards the zenith of spirit or whether it is more the sad reality of unhappy consciousness is, at times, somewhat difficult to ascertain. Gilroy argues that Hegel was one of the first thinkers to take modernity seriously as a problem and points out that while he seems superficially to endorse slavery, he in fact points out the fact that Hegel is instead pointing out that modernity makes a vicious dialectic impossible to avoid.

There is also another issue which has been discussed somewhat recently – that of capitalist comfort and discipline. Žižek’s article about Zack Snyder’s film 300 in which he advocated for a kind of discipline. This goes back to a point of Žižek’s I have frequently repeated where, in the documentary bearing his name, Žižek states that no one on the Left wishes to give up their material comforts in the wake of revolution, he uses Robespierre’s famous line ‘They want a revolution without revolution.’

Third point (connected to the previous one) is in regards to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (as well as Rey Chow’s Ethnic as per the previous answer) in how the religious ethic of hard work found in Protestantism fuels the idea of capitalism. It’s somewhat odd to take the Catholic concept of indulgences here as the main point of contention between Luther and the Catholic church and thereby viewing capital within religion coming full circle. Though the rise of protestantism (like liberation theology perhaps?) may have at least a kind classicist split.

Film in particular seems to regard the non-relation of the classes as one of rich but numbing stability on one hand and misery on the other. The only time (outside of the music and the dance) is shared capability of violence. In the case of the bourgeoisie it is a violence of influence, a shielded violence whereas for the poor it is a violence of ‘having nothing to loose.’ This attitude epitomizes that of the men who blindly follow Tyler Durden in Fight Club.

/2/ – More classes

The paying of indulgences suggests an obvious class privilege whereas the possible force of the protestant ethic is a working or middle class one. One can then find themselves caught between the acquired wealth that allows for indulgences and the lesser wealth acquired by ‘mindless’ work.

There most be some middle ground here – not middle ground in the sense of compromise for the sake of it, in order to simply avoid a fundamental antimony, but a shared point of departure, a way out of a deadlock. Looping back to my entry on the musical – there is the tie of music and the dance – how the characters of the musical is commonly split with class difference. I think one could fall into the democratic materialist trap (as Badiou would put it) that there are ‘only bodies and languages’ – that the communication of dance only says – we both have bodies, we can both move in the same way. The better more radical stance would be that the very fact that we have the shared capacity for dance – points not to a simple corporeal similarity but to one of a possibility for truth – that there’s a shared potentiality for the body to index something greater, something that cannot be reduced to either bodies or languages.

The failure of purportedly universal projects which especially aim to cut across class difference (here I am thinking of education as a particularly salient example) heavily dampers such a promise of truth. To swing things back to Weber’s field – we should look at how predestination split the protestants from the catholics. Implicit in the focus on predestination in Protestantism is, instead of good work in the Catholic world, the kind of work to do is essentially bad work or the work of pious survival. Is it not a parallel shift from old to new money?

Weber points out that the pugnacity of human greed isn’t enough to explain American capitalism but that an internal form of discipline is necessary. Following Chow, Weber argues that the Protestant notion of a Calling in necessary to explain the secular appearance of American capitalism. Taking another look at Hegel’s ‘the spirit is a bone’ – the transcendental nature of anything only occurs through the material meaning that the concept of Calling does not necessitate a god, but can, in psychoanalytic terms, be the Freudian sense of Trieb or drive. Put another way, there is something neither historical nor biological that drives us to work, to accumulate wealth. Before we’re too far off course let’s swing back to the transcendental.

/3/ – Capitalism as transcendental materialism

Another backwards loop – Kanye West’s Graduation is a kind of strange answer or perhaps retreat from, the fervor of Late Registration. West engages in quite a bit of self defending some for his outspokenness (as in the wake of hurricane Katrina) but he also discusses how he is not a gangster and defends his persona of wearing fancy clothes and notes his slightly above working class upbringing. What I want to discuss here is how if, as Žižek proposes to the annoyance of folks like Laclau, that capitalism is the ‘real of our epoch’ that how is one to handle the ‘capitalist temptation’ if, at bottom, we cannot even maneuver away from the gravity well of it’s greedy mass?

In the remix of Diamonds from Sierra Leone West shows his own surprise at the concept of blood diamonds:

Good Morning, this ain’t Vietnam still
People lose hands, legs, arms for real
Little was known of Sierra Leone
And how it connect to the diamonds we own
When I speak of Diamonds in this song
I ain’t talkin bout the ones that be glown
I’m talkin bout Rocafella, my home, my chain
These ain’t conflict diamonds,is they Jacob? don’t lie to me mayne”

West quickly points out that this doesn’t mean he is going to give up his jewelry, that it is part of his lifestyle that he is unwilling to sacrifice. To bring up an imagine that lends itself to the main push of this entry West states that the conflict to own gold is ‘in the black person’s soul.’ Elsewhere in West’s lyrics he repeatedly places greed alongside religious conviction (in Can’t tell me nothing, Touch the Sky, etc.).

As I read Žižek’s discussion of transcendental materialism (soon to be the focus of a new book by Adrian Johnston) I cannot help but read it as more or less Marxist – especially in terms of congealed labor – in the ways in which Marx took the idealism out of Hegel and implanted it into the actual world. Žižek of course does not simply argue alongside Marx but instead sees that Marx’s view of Hegel is a misreading that is epidemic. Žižek’s common focus on the concrete universal as well as infinite judgment supports the view that Hegel’s transcendentalism is not naive but deeply routed in the material (as was suggested above in my note about the master slave relation).

The crux of the issue here is what is the difference (or is there one?) between a transcendental materialist attitude and a fetishistic one? Or to put it in more insulting terms – does the third world serve as a kind of disavowed materiality for the transcendental of capital?

Taking a look at Kant’s argument in The Critique of Pure Reason, the transcendental attitude is about taking seriously the limitations of our sensual experiences. For Kant the transcendental has to do with accepting that the thing-in-itself is impossible and that the world that we know is all appearances. In a recent Larval Subjects post, Levi suggests that owning things in a capitalist society provides a way of deferring utopia. Let’s turn to a very recent cultural presentation of capitalism and utopia.

/4/ – Capitalist Utopias

The long awaited and much celebrated game Bioshock provides an incredibly interesting knot of dystopian socieities of control, unfettered capitalism, the responsibilities of scientific evolution and the frighteningly fragile nature of free will. These qualities are best found in the rivalries between the game’s two villains: Andrew Ryan – the Randian inspired utopian who becomes consumed by greed, and Fontaine – the even more greedy conman who becomes consumed by power (and the advances of science). The player takes on the role of Jack who, upon surviving a disastrous plane crash, finds himself being taken down into Rapture – an undersea society designed to bring together individuals and push forward the ‘great chain of industry.’ The story goes that a kind of arms race sprung up between the men and that the weapon of choice was genetic mutation. In the world of the game it is possible to quickly rewrite one’s DNA thereby gaining various abilities (telekinesis, fire creation etc.). Things, expectedly, get out of control and the city turns into a blood bath of overly mutated residents (deemed splicers) with a few hidden human survivors.

To step outside the game’s world for a minute – it’s interesting viewing the games anti-capitalistic imagery in light of its rampant success (the reviews of the game caused a 20 percent increase in the value of the parent company’s stock). This conjunction has caused a small revival in the status of games as art, as forms of narrative and even the older (yet still ongoing) issue of whether computer and video games should be viewed as games (the ludological approach) or as a form of literature (narratological approach.) The game has stirred up the old debate of the artistic validity of videogames when one takes into account the greed of the game publishing industry. Two interesting pieces are online; one discusses the function of art beyond the narrative while the other discusses the importance of narrative in games.

What’s interesting about Bioshock, despite it’s supposed valorization of free choice, is that the character never speaks, there is no output from the player’s lips. This is fairly par for the course in the most recent generation of first person shooters. Game designers have attempted to reduce the distance between the player and the character the player inhabits. [This has irked some gamers - in the case of Half Life 2, it was hard to believe that Gordon Freeman, the main character, would not ever speak given the outlandish circumstances he has to endure.]

What sets Bioshock apart though is that they explain this lack of subjectivity through the games story (you character was mentally conditioned to follow orders unconditionally). Jack’s Calling was one burned into his brain as an infant whereas the villains of the game became capitalist pigs due to their environment. While the ending of the game has your character committing a radical refusal in that he declines control of the underwater city, you do get the thing you’ve never had ‘a real family.’ The strangeness of this ending lies in the fact that because we never hear the main character speak, it is assumed that he desires a family only because that is what he doesn’t have.

/5/ – The transaction…

In the end then, the capitalistic logic remains intact – the game reinscribes the importance of a heteronormative and capitalistic existence. One seems to be left with only the fetishistic attitude – ‘I know X is only a simple object but still…’ or by following back on a more ‘normalized’ fiction – that of family, nationality and so on. As long as capitalism remains the unquestioned form of the current living narrative, then we will be stuck in the aforementioned deadlock. And any calling we sense comes from the corruptibility of desire, the real of capital…

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