Monday, July 16, 2012

Capitalist value and cool

This line of thought occurred to me while I was in the dentist's chair having my teeth scraped. Why do I worry so much about being cool? This feels like an alien imperative, yet it cuts to the core of my social being. It seems like an objective necessity that benefits no one in particular; it's something I just seem to owe to my particular slice of the society. Cool would seem to have no practical relevance whatsoever (things are cool because they somehow exceed functionality -- they express style, purity, etc.) yet it feels like an inescapable compulsion. I am saddled with a subjectivity that responds to cool, that is structured by it, even when I struggle to reject it, evade it.

Whenever I am worried about being "cool," I am caught up in the capitalist configuration of social relations and turning my consumption, my efforts to sustain and "reproduce" myself, and even my efforts to concretize and express my identity into labor on capitalism's terms. I am regarding social relations as intrinsically competitive with the reward being not reciprocation in the abstract but validation as a zero-sum thing -- I win the exchange when I am seen as cool relative to someone else, who is less cool. And the cool I have produced in my person, through my mediation of my everyday existence, will extend the tyranny of cool over social life that much further (I've enhanced the "value" of other commodities in symbolic terms, in terms of their coolness); in exchange I get to feel a little more secure in my status. I get to feel a little better about myself by feeling better than someone else.

The degree to which one accepts cool as a legitimate positive value, as something that enhances life, is also the degree to which one has bought into capitalism in its current stage. This is why I'm often puzzled when writers talk about something being cool without any shade of irony or apology; they are taking cool at face value as something that is making society better and not worse. Such people (Tiqqun calls them "Young Girls" in some allegedly nongendered way), I imagine, can shop at Urban Outfitters without a moment of hesitation because they actually respect what that company does in its cool hunting. It gathers the "valuable" things of culture in one place and distributes them to a broader base. Democratization!

But pursuing cool is always the pursuit of self-alienation as self-realization. It's accepting the purpose of self-actualization as winning approval in terms of the relative value of commodities one can display (or become). It's mistaking value (a specifically capitalist mediation) for wealth (a transhistorical value attuned to some more basic pleasure of existence). I'm deriving this distinction from Moishe Postone's analysis of value in Time, Labor and Social Domination, which is largely about how capitalism generates a confusion between value and wealth so that our energy is directed toward reproducing capitalism and its categories and social hierarchies rather than, say, ending poverty in the midst of plenty. All labor within consumer capitalism only seems to make useful things; in fact its main purpose is to make "value" -- what I'm calling cool. I just think passages like these from Postone make a lot more sense when you understand "value" as "cool" -- this weird social category of value that has nothing to do with use value but absorbs a great deal of effort and seems objectively important nonetheless:

Marx argues that what characterizes capitalist production is that the transformation of matter by labor is simply a means toward the creation of the social form constituted by labor (value). To say that the goal of production is (surplus-)value is to say that that goal is the social mediation itself.

This makes a lot more sense if you think about it in terms of "immaterial labor" as Virno and Lazzaurato describe it -- the enhancement of commodity values through our virtuosic consumption or deployment of them. When I'm posting a Faceook update, I'm creating value/cool via the work on my personal brand, and that is objectively relevent in capital though totally useless as a form of collective material wealth. I haven't added anything to the pile of stuff we need as a species, really, but I have produced value, I've made something that can circulate and add cool/value to other things. The point of posting to Facebook is "social mediation itself" -- the premise that doing so is a valuable thing to do, that we should all recognize it as such. That we should all acknowledge "cool" as value, whether or not our striving for it in any given attempt is totally successful. In other words, "surplus value" is another way of saying "cool" in consumer capitalism; its "surplus" because it has no basis in labor as such -- in the material transformation of stuff -- but in the way social relations are transformed by the work we do (on stuff, on ourselves, in communicating, etc.).

Postone argues that
The goal of the expenditure of labor power no longer is bound intrinsically to the specific nature of that labor; rather, this goal, despite appearances, is independent of the qualitative character of the labor expended — it is the objectification of labor time itself. That is to say, the expenditure of labor power is not a means to another end, but, as a means, has itself become an "end." This goal is given by the alienated structures constituted by (abstract) labor itself. As a goal, it is very singular; it is not only extrinsic to the specificity of (concrete) labor but also is posited independently of the social actors' wills.

Again, I think this is far less cryptic and implausible if you think of it in terms of making things "cool"  -- not that all work is about cool, but "cool" work is paradigmatic -- also "Cool" is what value is called perhaps in my hipster corner of the world; it might have some other name elsewhere, but would be describing the same phenomenon, the same capitalistic social relation. Anyway, the point of work is make "value" in the form of cool (value in the form of "value"), which then justifies the effort spent on it. Such "value" is limitless, not bound by material restraints, and thus suits capitalism's need for perpetual growth and the fantasy that wealth (personal and social) can be infinite. If we are measuring the worth of what we do in cool, we can never stop doing more to get more of it (and the distribution of this social "product" will never really be geared toward alleviating human suffering or mitigating inequality).

So yes, this is a product of my privilege that I can think of it this way, but I see the difference between "value" and "material wealth" as mirroring the difference between walking out the door full of anxiety over whether or not one is dressed in such a way as to be noticed positively (and then feeling reassured or depressed depending on what sort of attention one gets) or walking out the door and feeling immersed in the processes and abundance of life. When I am thinking about being cool, I am worried about producing value; when I manage to forget about it and stop worrying about being "productive" with my time, I am much closer to experiencing and perceiving the material value of being alive.

That probably sounds a little bogus and spiritualized. Mainly I am thinking of the difference between perpetual self-consciousness (which is an effect of capitalism requiring everyone to always self-commoditize, whether as a wage worker as a prosumer) and being able to see the world beyond oneself and not through that instrumental filter, looking for "value" everywhere.

Social media, etc., obviously makes this harder to avoid, extending the anxiety of leaving the house insufficiently cool into a full-time mode of existence, since every time you check Facebook, Twitter, etc., you are metaphorically walking out the door, worrying about how cool you are seeming. I've generally been afraid of going to Brooklyn because I am not nearly cool enough and the environment makes it hard for me to forget it, to see past that game, to escape that construct of value. Social media means Brooklyn everywhere.

Cool is a ramification of communication as commodity; social media are merely the latest means for capitalism to extend its form of value into everyday life and leave fewer spaces for respite from it. This is why social media represents "real subsumption" -- reshaping life to suit capitalism's functioning (rather than the adoption of precapitalist, transhistorical forms of life to capitalism's ends). Social media would not exist in a noncapitalist society; communication as mode of expressing "value" would not exist.

Anders Ramsay makes a similar point about value here. (I quoted this is a previous post; I added the bolding.)

As Heinrich states, "Value does not arise somewhere to then be 'there'." Value is not a thing but rather a social relationship. It emerges neither through production nor through exchange, but presupposes both. It is a property something is assigned in relation to other things, which then gives the appearance of possessing it quite apart from such a relationship. As Marx insists on repeatedly, value is a ghostly or over-sensual property, not a substantial one. The conception of a commodity possessing its value objectivity independent of these relations is a semblance that transforms a social property into what is taken to be a natural one.

The same situation applies to Pierre Bourdieu's non-economic concept of capital. One must both work for one's capital, get an education, practice, and produce something which is recognised by the field of science or art in order to become a scientist or an artist, or else one becomes neither, regardless of what one has produced for the drawer or the hard disc. Similarly, the value-relation does not arise in exchange without a labour process, but without exchange, concrete labour would never be reduced to abstract labour either, and thus, no value would emerge. One might also bring to mind Ludwig Wittgenstein's by now famous, and to modern social sciences so significant statement, that one cannot have a private language. The same thing applies to the value, one cannot decide it on one's own.

Cool is a damaged capitalist form of that shared social value. But it has the virtue of being social, at least, and there is no way backward from it. The point is to turn the self-consciousness cool induces into something that doesn't posit anxiety-inducing hierarchies and doesn't make us feel enslaved by notions of what is important that seem entirely alien and uncontrollable. The goal is to make self-consciousness and social presence not merely compatible but indistinguishable.