More from the Summer issue of American Affairs:
Take, for example, the protagonist of Soumission, who tries with all his might to convert to Christianity in the legendary cliffside city of Rocamadour:
"The Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power, but little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shriveled and puny. After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the car park."
Any reader, in my view, will be hard-pressed to deny that Houellebecq has identified—in passages such as this one—a crisis we all recognize. A crisis of atomization. We are free, and we are glad we are free. Yet we are also sad, fundamentally uprooted, always wandering, never at home, never safe—exiled, in effect, from the garden we still vaguely remember having once inhabited.
So the paradox is this: the freedom we desire eventually makes us unfree and unhappy, while the constraints that we reject eventually make us happy and free. We are profoundly incapable of defining ourselves as individuals (although we think we can). We constantly overestimate our own abilities to create a world on our own.
From the Summer issue of Plough Quarterly:
Essentially, capitalism is the process of securing evanescent material advantages through the permanent destruction of its own material basis. It is a system of total consumption, not simply in the commercial sense, but in the sense also that its necessary logic is the purest nihilism, a commitment to the transformation of concrete material plenitude into immaterial absolute value. I expect, therefore, that – barring the appearance, at an oblique angle, of some adventitious, countervailing agency – capitalism will not have exhausted its intrinsic energies until it has exhausted the world itself. That would, in fact, mark its final triumph: the total rendition of the last intractable residues of the merely intrinsically good into the impalpable Pythagorean eternity of market value. And any force capable of interrupting this process would have to come from beyond.
More from the wonderful Summer issue of American Affairs:
To formalize their study of formal cause, Marshall and Eric McLuhan used the heuristic of a “tetrad” of media effects, intended as a complement to Aristotle’s four types of causation. Two of the general consequences of technologies or mediums, they observed, were “retrieval” and “obsolescence.” While the logic of science adopted by market liberals thoroughly embraced the notion of linear and progressive obsolescence (except for scientific logic and economic theory itself), the notion of a retrieval of once-obsolete forms was unthinkable. Yet the principles and structure of market liberalism are now showing significant decay. Gone—obsolesced—is the quintessential economic participant of the print and early electric age, the mature adult father carefully calculating and ranking market preferences to secure his interest as head of household. Here, in his place, is the typical consumer of the terminal electric age: the immature young daughter, her scattered and perhaps contradictory preferences shaped by a fire hose of social media content (i.e. terminal television), from which she and her peers are already disengaging. The replacement of homo economicus with puella economica reflects a desperate attempt by televisual industry professionals to find and lock in new consumers, new revenue streams, and a new pattern for their own agency and viability. Yet they cannot arrest the obsolescence of the social and psychological environment once formed by televisual technology.
What new economic practices and institutions will arise in a West where the medium, not the market, shapes us? We are about to find out. But in keeping with the retrieval of premodern, pre-print political forms, it is likely that where once a unitary globalized West once stood, a plurality of arrangements and entities, some doubtless more prevalent in the Old World than the New, will arise—and not emerge.
In addition to the creation of the placenta, the inter-connectedness between the prenatal child and her mother is intimate and more profound than previously believed. We know that genetic material from the prenatal child crosses through the placenta and can be found in her mother’s circulation. This DNA is analyzed in some of the prenatal screening tests done to look for chromosomal abnormalities. The interaction at the level of genetic material however between mother and prenatal child goes much beyond that of a transient crossing of genetic material into maternal circulation. This is illustrated in what is called “microchimerism.”
The “chimera” in Greek Mythology is the fire breathing creature that is made of three distinct creatures—a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail. In science, microchimerism is the presence of a small population of genetically distinct and separately derived cells within an individual. The growing baby sends some of her cells across the placenta into her mother in a way that we are only beginning to understand. These cells migrate to various sites of maternal tissue and integrate into them. They then assume the function of the surrounding tissue and begin to function as such. The presence of fetal cells in maternal tissue is known as fetomaternal microchimerism.
Microchimeric cells have been found in various maternal tissues and organs, such as the breast, bone marrow, skin, liver and brain. Early and late effects of these cells have been hypothesized. Some of these cells appear to target sites of injury and may help mother heal after delivery by integrating into the Cesarean section wound and helping to produce collagen. Fetal cells may be involved in the process of lactation by signaling the mother’s body to make milk. Others have been thought to help protect a mother against breast cancer later in life. This process likely involves negotiation and cooperation between mom and baby at the cellular level. Researchers are in the early stages of attempting to understand the full function of these cells, but some models suggest that some of these cells continue to aid the mother years after her baby is born and may even influence spacing of future siblings. There is increasing evidence that fetomaternal microchimerism persists lifelong in many childbearing womenand may have important implications for the immune status of women. Some studies suggest that fetal cells protect women against autoimmune disorders. The full significance of fetomaternal microchimerism remains unclear and in some studies the cells have been linked to higher rates of diseases. The reality of this process challenges our long standing ideas about human beings existing as singular autonomous individuals.
I'll be sharing a lot of pieces from the Summer issues of American Affairs on my blog in the coming weeks. It's probably my favorite issue of the quarterly so far (and that includes the issues in which my own work appeared). There are just so many great pieces on everything from automation to nationalism to Houellebecq. In a landscape of vapid and cliche media, American Affairs stands out as being actually perceptive and relevant. You owe it to yourself to subscribe.
Anyway, the gist of this piece by Rian Whitton is that the "rust belt losers should shut up about offshoring their jobs because automation is the real and unavoidable killer that they're just going to have to learn to accept and compete against" line we heard so often after the 2016 election is mostly bullshit:
"Regardless of whether the impact of robotics on U.S. employment was incrementally negative or positive, a scholarly consensus is emerging that it was dwarfed by the offshoring of jobs to China following WTO accession. Another study coauthored by Acemoglu found that competition with Chinese imports cost the United States 2.4 million manufacturing jobs between 1999 and 2011.11
In addition, the argument that robots were the main culprit in the decline of U.S. manufacturing employment is not substantiated by what was actually happening in U.S. robotics, nor is it consistent with the experience of other countries. U.S. manufacturing jobs plummeted from over 17 million in 2000—when China joined the WTO and the bipartisan consensus in favour of trade liberalization was at its strongest—to under 12 million in 2010. (The number stood at 12.7 million in 2018.) Were it the case that these losses were mainly the result of automation, why did a 33 percent loss in manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2014 coincide with a 22 percent decrease in the number of manufacturing plants? Presumably, replacing labor with capital equipment might lead to some efficiencies in the closure of brownfield sites, but these large machines still have to work somewhere.
The assumed correlation between robotics deployment and losses in manufacturing jobs becomes even more tenuous when one considers countries other than the United States. A 2015 Brookings analysis finds a small negative correlation between growth in robotics adoption and job loss. Take the United Kingdom, whose use of robotics has been paltry in comparison to other European countries, and whose manufacturing employment decreased by over 50 percent between 1993 and 2007. By contrast, Germany’s manufacturing employment decreased by less than 20 percent during the same period, despite adding significantly more robots. (Most countries lost some employment during this period due to supply chains shifting in favor of China and the developing world.) Inhibiting or simply being apathetic about capital investment and automation will not save a country’s workers from unemployment; it will more likely cause them to lose further ground in an increasingly competitive manufacturing environment."
According to the principle of the universal destination of goods, all superfluous goods belong by right to the poor. But the difficulty comes in determining what really is superfluous. The human heart is devious, and skilled in self-deception. It is perhaps easier for communities to judge objectively about this than individuals. But even in communities one can find what Eberhard Arnold, cofounder of the Bruderhof, called “collective egoism.”
This entire process, whereby spending growth slows and is then seemingly automatically regenerated, raises an intriguing possibility: that our military-industrial complex has become, in Spinney’s words, a “living organic system” with a built-in self-defense reflex that reacts forcefully whenever a threat to its food supply—our money—hits a particular trigger point. The implications are profound, suggesting that the MIC is embedded in our society to such a degree that it cannot be dislodged, and also that it could be said to be concerned, exclusively, with self-preservation and expansion, like a giant, malignant virus. This, of course, is contrary to the notion that our armed forces exist to protect us against foreign enemies and impose our will around the globe—and that corruption, mismanagement, and costly foreign wars are anomalies that can be corrected with suitable reforms and changes in policy. But if we understand that the MIC exists purely to sustain itself and grow, it becomes easier to make sense of the corruption, mismanagement, and war, and understand why, despite warnings over allegedly looming threats, we remain in reality so poorly defended
Max Stirner’s Der Einzige und sein Eigentum belongs at the very beginning of the history of modernist manifestos. In many ways, it was simultaneously both the midwife and progeny of the materialist energy which would permeate the late-19th and early-20th century. Roberto Calasso writes in his book The Forty-Nine Steps that “autodidacts and maniacs” have felt drawn to Stirner’s “lump of nihilism.”.His predominating idea—the exaltation of a subjective ego as the guiding principle of life—was too sticky a subject for staid academics and men of letters. And yet they were haunted by the book and its author. Marx and Engels wrote the unpublished (in their lifetimes) The German Ideology as a book-length critique of Stirner without taking the time to mention the man or his work. In letters, Engels called it a criticism “as voluminous as the book itself.” Nietzsche took the essence of Stirner and dressed it up in philology. He whispered Striner’s name to friends but never dared write about the man. Decades later, Heidegger would, as Calasso suggests, quote Nietzsche’s silence on Stirner while putting many of his notions of subjectivity to use.
What does this have to do with Rachel Haywire and her book The New Art Right? Honesty, I suppose. Haywire’s latest collection of essays draws openly from Stirner. You could say there are two branches of social thought and criticism: those who openly and honestly acknowledge Stirner and those too peevish to mention his name, even if critiquing his ego-centric brand of nihilism. Haywire belongs in the honesty camp. And along with that comes a clear-eyed assessment of where we might be right now and where we might be heading, collectively, in the future.
Haywire is one of Calasso’s autodidacts and maniacs. And as messy and misfit as The Art Right is, its chaotic heat is precisely what it draws its power from. There’s a lot here to think about—both with and against. But Haywire gets the single most important thing about contemporary politics right: our notions of left and right are woefully outmoded.