UNDERSTANDING OUR DILEMMA: CAPITALISM’S PSYCHIC INVESTMENT – PART TWO

In this chapter I will explore the genealogy of the psychic investment of ‘capitalism’ through the process of capitalization[i], which I describe as a ‘technology of micropractices’. These practices are most visible in the outworkings of the operation of mass media, advertising and the culture of consumerism and represent the culmination of a deeply ambivalent tradition in Western thought that has resulted in a profound ‘breach of faith toward everything that is’.[ii] For Apffel Marglin and Bush it is this breach, first articulated by René Descartes, that not only enabled unprecedented levels of human control and manipulation of the social and natural world but also lies today behind a deep alienation and meaninglessness. Since the sixteenth century, ‘control’ has been a key strategic value informing the explosion of technological development associated with the rise of the European West and its influence over other parts of the world. Hershock notes that what we refer to generically as ‘technology’ is actually a particular family or lineage of technologies that has arisen and been sustained through a complex of political, social, economic and cultural forces focused on the value of exerting control over our circumstances to enhance felt independence. This strategic value has delivered military and ecological destruction on a scale hitherto never attained, having co-evolved with and serviced the rise of the modern nation State[iii]. Writing from a Buddhist perspective, Hershock notes that although we remain related to others and to our environment, the prevalence of control fosters a dichotomous perspective on that relationship – a splitting into the objective and subjective – that facilitates treating our relations with others as either actually or potentially instrumental:

No longer intimately continuous with all things – that is, related internally – gaps open in what I can attend or hold in careful awareness. By ignoring what intimately connects who “I am” with what “I am not”, I render myself liable to being blindsided – subject to accidental or fateful events of the sort that cause the experience of trouble or suffering. Asserting independence through exercising technologically mediated control almost paradoxically renders us subject to new vulnerabilities.[iv]

Hershock believes that the single most important long-term cost of convenience and control – in the context of the availability of global commodities – is an overall erosion of relational quality resulting in a mounting incapacity for appreciation and contribution. He observes an overwhelming trend in contemporary commodity consumption practices in the compression of the temporal and spatial scope of consumption that it mimics a digital transition from not having to having – a transition that disallows any complex, improvised relational ground being navigated or any qualitative shift in relationality being initiated and sustained. Noting considerable implications for the nature and dynamics of the public sphere, he describes the market valorization of convenience and choice as signalling both a general narrowing of our horizons of personal responsibility and, over time, a severe compromise of relational capability and attunement. Each act of commodity consumption marks a smooth and efficient paving over of opportunities for developing the complex attentive and relational skills associated with contributory virtuosity. And, in the process of handing ourselves over to the purveyors of expertly designed and manufactured goods, services, knowledge products, and meaning, we are rendering ourselves increasingly in need of expert, globally mediated, care. Degraded environments, then, are inseparable from degraded consciousness, in a dual pattern of degradation that at once devalues what is experienced and lowers experiential quality. Hershock goes further and suggests that the colonization of consciousness is in many ways a more critical threat to our possibilities for realizing truly liberating environments than is the depletion of soil, the fouling of our rivers, lakes, seas, and skies. The mass media have become the primary system through which the attention economy manages to be a net producer of dramatic entropy or situations in which no matter what choices we make, they will not ultimately make much of a difference. This has among its salient effects the conservation of an uncontested space for the perseverance of liberal individualism and an ontological bias towards existents rather than relationships. To counteract our dramatic impoverishment and attentive atrophy, he commends the direct cultivation of appreciative and contributory virtuosity. Hershock looks to the cultivation or rehabilitation of a form of freedom understood as virtuosic skill in improvising meaningful interdependence. Desire, then, need not be solely viewed as a source of frustration arising from self-centred attachment or craving. Rather, with cultivation, desire can become a crucial factor in the immediate realization of an unprecedented responsiveness.[v]

At the heart of the dilemma outlined here is a decisive break in our understanding or appreciation of the ethical (under the sign of modernity), a break that has serviced the growing gap between our collective ability to discuss the ethical and devise effective strategies. These envisaged strategies would contribute to the cultivation of embodied micropractices consistent with the translation of our recognition of ‘ecological boundaries’ into demands for consistent lifestyle choices and practices for the great transition.[vi]

Foucault believed that a moral code per se is inadequate. For an action to be ‘moral’ it must not be reducible to an act or a series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value. There is no moral conduct, for Foucault, that does not also call for the forming of oneself as an ethical subject; and no forming of the ethical subject without ‘modes of subjectification’ and an ‘ascetics’ or ‘practices of the self’ that support them.[vii] In the course of his work, Foucault makes clear that the modalities of self-formation are always potentially prescribed. In his work on Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison[viii], he discusses ‘biopower’ as the normalizing power of disciplinary practices that write the law into the body. However, in the later work, Foucault holds open the prospect for self-formation that cannot be reduced to the possibilities of normalizing power such as that exercised by the institutions of capital. He insists on the possibility of reflective modification of the sensibility of the self by the self, positing that there is no self without discipline, no discipline that does not also harbour opportunities for the arts of the self, and no effective ethics without such an aesthetic project. For Foucault a moment of freedom survives within subjectivity after all, at least when it is not reduced to a purely intellectual formation. Foucault resignifies freedom by locating it in relation to a historically situated rationality and a recalcitrant body. He tries to find a way to speak of the moments of individual self-direction that persist inside disciplinary power and to do so outside of a Kantian vocabulary. To engage ‘the limits that are imposed on us’ is, says Foucault,[ix] at the same time to ‘experiment with the possibility of going beyond them’. [x]

For Bennett, sensibility or refinement of new assemblage of sensible primorida, while culturally encoded and temperamentally delimited, is still educable to some degree. Like the code dimension of ethics, techniques of sensibility-formation are concerned with governing and refining behaviour. The difference is that these techniques respond to subtle norms of admirable behaviour and thought; they address the question of which modes of perception and which styles of comportment, and not simply which actions, are most laudable. She posits that this refinement might even make for a more resilient and careful approach to ethics. [xi]

[i] J. Nitzan and S. Bichler, Capital as Power: A Study of Order and Creorder (Routledge, 2009).

[ii] M. Boss, A Psychiatrist Discovers India (Oswald Wolf, 1965), at 102-121, cited in F. Apffel-Marglin and M. Bush, ‘Healing the Breach of Faith Toward Everything That Is: Integration in Academia’ (2005), available at <http://www.contemplativemind.org/programs/academic/summer05/Apffel-Marglin_Bush.pdf&gt;.

[iii] J.C. Scott, Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998)

[iv] See P.D. Hershock, n. 2 above, at 90-91.

[v] See P.D. Hershock, n. Error! Bookmark not defined. above, at 132. See also, P.D. Hershock, Liberating Intimacy: Enlightenment and Social Virtuosity in Ch’an Buddhism, (State University of New York, 1996); and P.D. Hershock, n. 2 above.

[vi] The New Economics Foundation, The Great Transition: A Tale of How it Turned Out Alright (New Economics Foundation, 2009).

[vii] M. Foucault, ‘An Ethics of Pleasure’ inJ. Johnston and S. Lotringer (eds.), Foucault Live, (Semiotext(e), 1989), at 266, cited in J. Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics  (Princeton University Press, 2001), at 144-146.

[viii] M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (Vintage Books, 1995).

[ix] See J. Bennett, n. 14 above, at 150.

[x] Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, in Foucault Reader, 50, cited in J. Bennett, n. 14 above, at 146.

[xi]  Ibid., at 150.

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