Ruminations on alienation, commodity fetishism, myth, etc. Don’t mind me.
Battle for the Planet of the Apes
Human beings have always made stuff. Broadly, that’s what humans are: the apes that make stuff. Even before Darwin, Benjamin Franklin called man “the tool-making animal”, a description apparently vindicated by our discoveries about early humanity, which seem to show the rise of the ‘big brain’ driven by the needs of the hand.
The flint tools and decorative beads of the hunter-gatherers. The pyramids and ziggurats of the great slave empires. The water wheels and ploughs of medieval Europe.
But the rise of capitalism brought the factory system. The division of labour. Specialisation without expertise. Organisation of time. The creation of new kinds of cities that worked as battery farms for thousands of corralled workers. Mass production. Heavy industry. Conveyor belts. Fordism. Mechanisation. Computer-run facilities.
The ape that makes things started to make things faster than ever before, in greater numbers than ever before. And the things started to confront the thingmaker as alien, autonomous, controlling, dominating. When you have to watch a clock to make sure you clock in and clock out at the right time, it’s hard not to feel like you are answerable to the clocks, even if you work in a clock factory making clocks.
The rise of science and technology. This was also part of the rise of capitalism. Galileo, who pretty much invented what we would call modern science during the Renaissance (or the ‘Early Modern Period’, the period during which feudalism began to give way to the rise of mercantile trade, finance, private industry, markets, etc.), sold his inventions, made in his own workshop, to the Venetians who protected him. His first telescope, based on Flemish spyglasses, were made to be sold to the traders on the Rialto (the Venetian stock market: centre and powerhouse of the thrusting, ultra-modern city republic), so that they could identify at long range which merchant’s ships were returning safely, laden with goods. Only later did it occur to Galileo that he could train his telescopes upon the moon and the stars and the planets. When he did so, he published his explosive findings on the market and had a bestseller on his hands.
Later, but still as part of the same process of the rise of the new system, the concept of entropy, and with it pretty much the whole of modern applied physics, came from the need to better understand (and thus improve) how engines work, engines that powered the industrial revolution.
The things that the thing-making-ape made became increasingly wondrous. The engines became bigger, faster, more powerful. They took us all across the world (usually to pillage and enslave). They created wars that devastated vast swathes of the globe. They ferried people to industrial murder factories. They allowed man to fly. To drop bombs that killed hundreds of thousands in seconds. They put apes on the moon.
And they transformed inner space too. “You’ve discovered television, haven’t you?” And here we are, on the glorious interweb.
Things change faster than ever before in human history. The technology of the world in which Plato died was essentially the same as the technology of the world into which he was born. The waterwheel and the hand axe lasted for millenia. Capitalism brought tools and toys that become obsolete in weeks.
When I was born, analogue cassette tapes still seemed pretty cool to people. I’m only 35 (nearly) and I’m currently listening to one of the thousands of digitalised songs on my mp3 player, a machine that fits into my pocket and has thousands of times the processing power and memory capacity of the state of the art of the mid 70s.
The things we make… the engines… the artefacts… they behave like this because they are the products of capitalism. They are commodities. Made to be sold as much as to be used.
Products breed and teem and change and mutate and multiply like bacteria. They seem to have minds of their own. They move without us, they talk without us, they do things and say things we don’t understand, they assail us with cryptic error messages, they catch viruses. They fly without pilots and destroy villages in Pakistan.
Those last ones we call “drones”, naming them after living things (with irony as mordant as it is unconscious, we call them after the mindless worker bees in the rigid insectile hierarchy). This is commodity fetishism.
It’s amazing, when you stop to think about it, just how CONSTANTLY we think and talk about inanimate stuff, about products, about commodities, as though they are alive… and powerful.
The stock market is a product. It is something made by the apes. Yet we report upon its twitches and tremours and undulations and ululations and sneezes and farts as though we are reporting the natural bodly processes and moods of some great beast, some kraken, some leviathan to which we owe homage, to who’s whims we are subject.
Meanwhile, apes make other apes into commodities. Chattel slavery may be rarer than it once was, but wage slavery has never been more common. Our labour – that is, ourselves… we are the ape that makes stuff, remember… our productive capabilities and inclinations are fundamental to our nature – are bought and sold on a job market. We are speculated upon and traded in like junk bonds or pork futures. Longpigs, simmering in the cannibal cauldron of employment.
The stuff breeds and teems as people die in swathes. From hunger, from AIDS, from despair, from by-products, from environmental backlash, from sheer grinding poverty. Much of this death is man-made, directly or indirectly. Even the entirely natural disasters and natural plagues (if there are such things) find an accomplice in the man-made system that creates impoverished hemispheres of the planet, that results in coastal shanty towns, that corrals people into filthy prisons, that encourages mass prostitution, that loots and subjugates Africa to the West.
We in the rich world splurge at the shops, investing in things as though they are charms and icons and totems… sometimes literally. Religion is bought and sold. Give till it hurts. The Lord wants your credit card number.
More broadly, the elision continues beyond the profaned and commodified sacred, which is only the most brazen manifestation of this syndrome.
We both lust over and worship the sleek, mass-produced things… like the audiences to those reverent but furtively sexualised icons of Jesus or the Madonna. We expect these sexy things to change how we look, how we are percieved, how we feel, how we think, how we eat, how and who and when we fuck. We expect deliverance and transfiguration in return for our money. We’ve transferred our lust and hope from the foot to the shoe, like some poor pervert who forgets the beauty of the toes and can only get hard over PVC fetish boots.
As with religion, the ape bows down before the totem pole that she/he made and worships it as though it is a power outside her/himself… forgetting that she/he made it and that it represents her/his own powers.
In the capitalist world, this is exacerbated a thousand fold.
The people who make everything do not do so under conditions of their own choosing. They are on the job market, so they end up making stuff for the stuff market. We make what we’re told, as many as we’re told, for purposes we don’t choose. Indeed, there is no purpose beyond the creation of commodities. Things are made to be sold. The iPad is not made in order to express human creativity. The iPad is made by people whose creative lives have been yoked to the creation of iPads by people who think they can sell iPads in order to make profit that will keep their iPad-making racket going.
We end up buried.
Stuff is made in order to be saleable in order to fund the making of saleable stuff.
That is human creativity slaved to a system of general commodity production. That is not human self-expression. This is alienation.
And the factories and shops and conveyor belts and automated production lines that make the system work are also made things, products of the same system.
The truncheons that thump us when we riot against the system, or even just some aspect of it, are made and sold things.
The newspapers that constantly tell us that THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE are made and sold things.
Not only is human creativity subverted into the production of commodities, human creativity is also subverted into the production of the materiel of the system of commodity production. And this is a war too. Because the people that own the factories and shops and conveyor belts and truncheons and newspapers are NOT the same people who actually make them, or the things that such things help to make. The profits go to the owners, not the makers. So the makers find themselves making the weapons of their enemies.
Indeed, we are all glowered-over and dominated by the stuff we and previous generations have made. This is old labour, petrified into threatening and ruling facts. This dead labour, lording it over the living.
In some ways, it’s always been so, and always had to be.
Genesis of the Dialects
Genesis (the book) is such a powerful and resonant text because it describes the moment when the ape became aware of… or perhaps invented… good and evil, guilt and shame. Which is to say, empathy… which is to say, reflection.
The beasts of the field do not know they are naked. It is the knowledge of nakedness that brings the abashedness of mutual desire (or the lack of desire), of mutual judgement.
The knowledge comes from reflection. He looks at her; she looks at him; they become aware of each other’s gazes; they see their own reflections in each other’s eyes; they imagine their own desire mirrored in the mind of the other; they see themselves from the outside.
Let’s shift the sense of the word ‘reflection’ in a way that is surely the result of a connection deep within the word itself. Reflection is also cogitation. It is also the turning of a gaze inwards. This is possible because of language.
Language is an inner narration that externalises and an external communication that internalises. To hear the external communication of another is to evesdrop upon their internal narrative. It is to compare it to one’s own inner narrative. Again, words become another mirror in which we see ourselves reflected.
Adam and Eve begin with a language that is non-figurative. Adam names the animals and the names he gives them are them. The fall severs the sign from the signified, the referent from the referred-to. That is the curse but also the release. The transformation of words into metaphors is what makes figuration possible. It brings the possibility of knowledge, because all knowledge is metaphor and analogy.
The most human analogy is the analogy we draw between ourselves and others. Empathy. Empathy is the parent of guilt. Empathy is the parent of love. Empathy is the mirror in which we regard ourselves. All moral considerations are considerations of ourselves reflected in the eyes of another.
This nest of complementary meanings resolve themselves into the bittersweet but progressive tragedy whereby the apes achieve conception of their own reflections.
All of this is simply to pay the powerful myth the compliment of refusing to take it literally… which is to say, obey it. The text itself instructs us not to take it literally. To do so is not only the height of idiocy but is also to insult and abuse the text itself, more so than to dismiss it entirely (which is also very stupid).
The same moment – the moment of the fall, the apple moment – is also the moment when the people in the garden scoop up leaves to make their first clothes, to hide their erotic parts from each other. This is an attempt to deintensify the sensations of desire, empathy, guilt.
It is also the fashioning of a tool, the cooptation of something in the natural environment to play an artificial purpose (literally, the role of an artifact) in the life of man and woman.
It is, in embryo, the birth of the product, even the commodity. The apple moment. The iFall, one might say.
But the moment when knowledge of nakedness brings knowledge of empathy, and thus desire and guilt and shame (it is pointless to deny that these are inherent parts of sexuality… because sexuality is inherently bound of up mutual revelation and subjection to each others’ appetites… hence mutual judgement), is also the moment of defiance of God. It is the moment when the smothering, protective blanket of the dictats of the undefiable FatherRulerKingComputerSky (nature, circumstance, Things As They Are, however you want to interpret Him) is torn apart by man and woman, by their new-found (as they percieve it) awareness. If they know, they can choose.
But their choice is inextricably bound up with the tool, with the manual use of nature, with the fashioning of clothes, with the construction of the artifact, with the transformation of the word into a machine for analogy.
This is why the myth has Adam and Eve chased from the garden into a world of work and pain. For too long, interpreters have concentrated on the appearance of Death on the scene. But Death is the least of it. It is the toil and grief of life which constitutes the really pertinent feature of the ex-Garden landscape. Cain and Abel have to tend the land, which is what leads to the murder.
The myth merges the emergence of conscious, self-aware, empathic humanity from animal kind with the emergence of civillised (attaching no moral connotations to that word) humans from the gatherers and hunters of prehistory.
The elision is a powerful one, perhaps even an unavoidable one in a myth which arose before knowledge of our animal ancestry.
The tool brings settlement, agriculture, surplus and hence class. Hierarchy arises to confiscate the surplus created by humanity in possession of powerful tools such as hoes and scythes and farming and settled villages. Hierarchy manages, centralises, organises and hoardes. Hierarchy alienates the mass of humanity from the fruits of their labour via confiscation. Humans begin to channel their labour into social ends, which under hierarchy means into great, locked granaries controlled and administered by layers of priests and administrators and bureaucrats. The farmer’s labour feeds not him and his family and extended tribe, with the labour and the results in common. The farmer’s labour feeds the gaping maw of the settlement, the village, the city, the nation, etc.
This is the world of grinding toil and alienated products that humanity finds itself in after the expulsion from the rugged and dirty Eden of pre-class society, of hunting, of scavenging, of following herds of dairy animals, of nomadism. This is why representations like this…
|By Masaccio. The most moving depiction of the expulsion in all art, in my opinion.|
…show Adam and Eve chased out of the garden by an angel wielding a sword. Swords are tools. Weapons may be said to be the ur-tools. The weapon to cleave the ground, or to cleave the skull of the food animal. Cain and Abel work the land; Cain kills Abel as he might slaughter a sheep. The tool is the sharp edge that pokes the humans out of their prelapsarian, pre-alienation world.
It is, literally, the alienation machine.
This is one reason why humans have always told stories about their tools, about how their tools seem to turn upon them, dominate them, attack them.
The War Machines
The walls of Jericho fell because they encircled a settlement that was coveted by outsiders. The products of one side (the walls) are tumbled by the products of the other (in the story, trumpets). Robbery with violence is the organising principle of imperialism, of all war… and it comes from the tool, from the surplus, from the class system that makes organised armies of expendable grunts.
The whole Old Testament is the story of the gradual, painful, war-torn transition of little nomadic bands of nations and tribes (really just peripatetic extended families) into settled, argicultural, hierarchical, alienated societies. Or perhaps I should say more alienated… because the moment Adam and Eve really see each other and see the potential to make leaves into clothes and words into metaphors, they also become alienated from the natural world from which they sprung.
The beast’s condition is not harmony with nature exactly, but alienation is the nature not of the beast but of the human. It is what happens when we view everything outside ourselves through the mirror of language, of metaphor, of empathy, of judgement, and of the artifact.
It is possible that the myth of the iFall does not recognise the possibility of achievement, progress, ascent, science (to use the term broadly) – of escape from those cruelties, miseries and banalities before class – without the curses of alienated toil. This is a limitation of the myth.
Vengeance in Venice
In the myth, work is post-fall man’s curse and redemption.
This is the ideology of a settled, agricultural society with hierarchies comprising toiling masses at the base: people are told that toil is their lot in life, their just punishment, but also that it is their chance of redemption, their spiritual duty. The higher layers, who toiled less if at all, had to be sanctified by other means: by making them warriors or priests.
Interestingly, for centuries, usurers were reviled for accumulating without labour. But the rise of capital was also the rise of finance, so the taboo on usury had to change. Usury was a necessary evil for trading societies, often displaced onto the Jews for that reason. The Venetian merchant (who might have spied his goods-laden ships returning through a telescope manufactured and sold by Galileo… who was born in the same year as the merchant’s creating author) hates Shylock because he needs him.
On the grander scale, usury was recast as banking.
Dante has usurers in the Seventh Circle of his Inferno, condemned to an eternity of never being able to still their fidgeting fingers as punishment for not turning those fingers to productive use during their lives. The Devil finds work for idle hands, as they say. But Dante, like many great and crucial figures in literature, was dramatising the contradictions of a time of deep social transition. His Florence was that of the early-Renaissance, of the rise of bankers and moneylenders. These people were aware of their taint. But in a world where everything was becoming a commodity, even usurers, bankers and moneylenders could buy salvation, theological and social (if, indeed, there was a distinction). If they were good enough at their sinful work to become rich, they could pay for expensive endowments to churches and chapels and monasteries.
One pre-Medici moneylender was able to pay for a huge fresco depicting Dante’s Hell, complete with suffering moneylenders (his less successful competitors, presumably).
The Medicis themselves adopted the Magi as their mascots; the three wise men who had paid tribute to the infant Christ with gold and luxurious spices.
Cosima Medici built an entire monastery with his dirty money, in which he came to play at being a penitent. His monastic cell was more opulent than the others, naturally. He faced the same dilemma as Claudius in Hamlet: how does one meaningfully repent without sacrificing the gains for which one sinned? Claudius, unlike Cosima, recognised the impossibility of squaring that particular vicious circle.
The End of Time
This is not to say that we are perpetually and inevitably doomed to the kind of escalating alienation that has been a feature of all civilisation up to now… (that’s a different story). Alienation is, I think, an inherent part of being human… of being sentient, with sentience bound up with the use of language. How much alienation we suffer, how severe it is, and what form it takes… this is all up to us. We don’t need to live in societies which force us to confront the products of our labour as hostile, alien, outer Others. We don’t need to live in societies where the State confronts us as an enemy, where industry confronts us as exploitation, where production and consumption are so far outside our control that they seem to be the unpredictable boons of a mystical realm of markets. We don’t need to live in a word of private property and wages. We don’t essentially need, as humans, to live within stratifications of class and hierarchy.
For most of human history, before the rise of surplus and class, we lived as hunters and gatherers. Whatever the considerable cruelties, miseries and banalities of such a life, there was no class as we would recognise it, no war as we would recognise it, no tyranny except the tyranny of predator and dearth.
In principle, at least, we can do better. The history before the iFall proves that.