Friday, April 6, 2012

horizons of obsolescence

It's been a while since I sat down to write. It's been one of those weeks where I have too much happening and too much I want to accomplish. And at times it seems impossible to pull out a single thread and think about just it. I guess I should be happy that my life moves towards the divergent. I could spend all my time in an office waiting to die, or scheduling widgets, or making lists.

My computer of almost ten years died last week. With all of my work on it. My entire portfolio, everything I'd written, all the tools I use daily to read and write and make art. Most of my time this last week has gone towards salvaging data, picking a new system, getting it to work, etc. And something about this felt eerie, familiar and out of place. It made me consider what this machine meant.

Some significant part of my sense of self resided in this dead machine. It was a part of my daily existence. Almost everything I did was mediated through it. It was, in a very real way, an extension of me. The core of this idea of a cyborg self has been around for a while in one form or another. Before smart phones and laptops we were still extended, only into different sorts of machines – like cars, factories, hand tools, etc.; or into social structures like the union hall, or the body of the king, or the church, or etc. The difference today is not so much about extension, but of extension into what. We are fully machine and fully human. And it's obvious that most of us around the world will seek to become more and more integrated into those machines.

What I felt most of all in confronting the loss of my old computer, was a deep frustration that I couldn't have it anymore. It was in some small way like loosing a friend. But there was something else, a more general feeling of frustration as well. I was on a short fuse all week. Everything bothered me more than usual. Whenever my inner life no longer reflects the world around me, I get curious. Either I'm just crazy, or I feel very strongly about this dead machine for a reason: namely that this loss shares a horizon with another kind of loss. It is just like certain anxieties around physicality and decay. We age, get sick, etc. We are surrounded by losses, both great and small. And there is very little we can do about it.

It would have been nonsensical to repair my old computer, despite that all I really wanted was for it to continue to work in the way it always had. In other words, what I felt was an anxiety about mutability and death in general, and the death of the individual in particular.

The idea of the individual has always been, more or less, in crisis. But in some not so distant past there was a sense that there was a true, real something in the "I" that doubts: a soul, or a mind that existed in some kind of immutable way. This is the self that could change the world. We told histories based on the actions of great individuals. To these sorts of selves we could say something like "to thine own self be true." How could we now say such a thing (except as an empty platitude) to our fractured, combustible, hyper-extended sense of the person? Marx displaced the person into the overwhelming forces of history and culture. Freud drew that conflict in, and from the inside out. And postmodernism has embraced this as a kind of transformative freedom. The postmodern self is not a self at all. But a veneer over a nexus of multiple and complicated relationships to stories and discourses and structures and, yes, machines. What becomes of agency in this idea of the self? Who is even acting if "I" am subject to overwhelming forces? I don't know. I don't really care. And it doesn't matter. If there is nothing underneath the narratives and relationships that are told on a body, it doesn't make a lick of difference, existentially. The only thing worth talking about here is how these ideas of the person are a conceptual corollary to the demands of capital. And how this is the ultimate embrace of loss, mutability, and death.

What does that mean exactly? It means that our ideas of the person have the same planned obsolescence as the consumer goods we produce. The computer I used to use, was designed to fail. It's useful life was merely a few years. After that it had to be replaced irrespective of what it carried of “me.” When it comes to microwaves or TVs, you might say “so what?” But when this speaks of a person, then what?

And I'm afraid that this answer is actually quite terrifying. In a sense it asks what is the value of a human life? Does it have a dollar value? Does it depend on nationality or religion or on some relationship to one ideology or another? What in a human life is worth preserving or protecting? What is the horizon of its obsolescence?

The first difficulty that comes to mind here is what counts as a human life? Human in the way that my mother counts as human (or my dogs even)? What value does an individual life have? I don't have an answer for that. A few conjectures, to be sure. But the point is that our collective answer is cognitively dissonant. A life is immeasurably valuable and entirely irrelevant to us (in what we say and what we do). We care about a human life in so far as it is part of us, individually. This has always been the case. My brother's suffering is not the same as the suffering of another (or even millions of others) around the world. From the point of view of the postmodern subjectivity, this ambivalence makes a kind of final sense. If the person is fluid and extended, then what value is “I” if it has no innate or immutable reality? If my value exists in my relationships to others, and history, and culture, and whatever else... on what grounds do you protect my rights to life and dignity and security? On what grounds do you not plan for my obsolescence? It is too easy to subsume any individual subjectivity into the idea of an integrated system of subjectivities. One point on a net is easily bypassed. This is a computational_machine/ brain_model of society. And it might or might not be the best way to look at it... But it is implicit or explicit in our politics, economics, and sciences.

And so in my dead computer, what I see is that the whole trajectory of violence against people, for various reasons throughout history, has found its final rationale in the reduction of the human subject to a node on a system, to a commodity that wants and thinks that will be replaced by the next one, as needed. The mechanized and atomic brutality of the 20th century, different only in scale and technology from the brutality of previous centuries, and its corollary economic system, shows our ultimate assertion of the triumph of death over life.

If our endless_growth/ planned_obsolescence social organization requires the immense suffering of others and the alienation of the idea of subjectivity (and I think we can make a very good case for this), then how could we not suppress the impulse towards compassion? And why shouldn't we suppress it?

A reason not to suppress compassion (in the sense of concern for the other) might be contained in the very model the reduces us to a (glorified, self-actualized, virtual, irrelevant) cog in a system. If my subjectivity depends on yours, however obliquely, could we make the case that a harm to one is indeed a harm to everyone? This is trite, of course. And I don't mean to be naive. And the question of what constitutes harm (systemically) is thorny indeed. But at least we could say that if the postmodern (capitalist) subjectivity is radically isolated, alienated, in want; and also simultaneously self-aggregating, decentralized, fluid, interconnected, extended, non-binary, etc., then it also presents an ecological model (which emphasizes the interdependence of parts in a system)  of social organization... I'm not sure if that kind of thinking is, in itself, any more or less compassionate. It also operates under rational principles alien to the idea of a unified subject, but perhaps it offers a glimmer of conceptual possibility. Maybe, maybe not.

I think that something similar to this is the subject of Adam Curtis' most recent documentary: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. It might be time to check it out.

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