It was presented in the first Turkish New Media Congress in İstanbul, May 2013. See the Turkish version.
Dr. Işık Barış Fidaner
The concept of real abstraction —indicated by Sohn-Rethel in interpreting Marx— offers a crucial starting point in understanding capitalism. In this work, we attempt to derive the diagram of the real abstraction that enables the operativeness of capitalism. In constituting the conceptual context of the diagram, contrary to Sohn-Rethel who relies on the scientific discourse, we take as ground the daily comprehension of capitalism. This diagram that we call postmodern alienation model consists of four subjective attitudes (consumer, user, player, developer), three problems (addiction, abuse, selfishness), two focal points (conspirator, fate), two sides that constitute the measurable objectivity (authority, body) and two grounds that serve both as bases and as origins to this two sided objectivity (will, system). The whole of the diagram is formed through reciprocal mediations of exigencies and enjoyments.
authority, body, will, system, consumer, addiction, user, abuse, player, selfishness, developer, exigency, enjoyment
‘We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors.’ (Solaris by Stanislav Lem)
Nowadays the concepts that qualify the social field are in most cases narrowing down or losing their meanings. While the concepts that sustain links to concrete activities are subjected to a narrowing of scope correlative to the technical and institutional segmentation of social fields; the concepts that one refers to in a general scope, due to this same segmentation, are becoming inconsistent and abstract, being restricted to functions like indicating privilege and status. The technical transformation of society and the advances in the division of labour are reflected in a gradual increase in the possibilities of communication, while the concepts lose their functions by the segmentation of this communication. The social sciences experience this problem in the most grave manner, whereas the numerical sciences are segmented to a lesser extent owing to the fact that the technical fields preserve their resemblances in the global scale, so they can sustain their practical functionality even when they lose their theoretical integrity.
In Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s words, our consciousness and our actions are moving in directions opposite to one another (Sohn-Rethel 1998). While our consciousnesses are narrowing down towards different directions, our actions multiply themselves by feeding and supporting one another in a manner to operate the global machine that we call capitalism. In this way, capitalism —whose operativity is increased by our actions that have lost the guidance of consciousness— regards new thoughts as unnecessary and aims to narrow down altogether and destroy thought creation by regulations to transform universities into technical schools.
Sohn-Rethel in his book Intellectual Labour and Manual Labour where he addresses the Marxist matter of superstructure and substructure, explains how our consciousness and action —thereby the science and the economy— operate as processes separate from one another in the bourgeois society. By demonstrating how the transcendental subject indicated by Kant in his critique of science coincides with the commodity abstraction indicated by Marx in his critique of economics, Sohn-Rethel shows that the reflections of thought in science originate a priori from the real abstractions that are animated by social actions. The exchange abstraction, on which the book concentrates, having originated from the establishment of market spaces abstracted from use spaces in the historical progress, has constituted a conceptual basis for scientific activities that involve quantitative calculations.
Sohn-Rethel concentrates on the production systems of capitalism and its monopolistic and technocratic dimension. One can say that, from 1960s onwards, a second capitalist dimension that can be called cultural capitalism or a society of spectacle has maturated through consumption systems, and carried the exchange abstraction at the heart of capitalism to a more complicated point (Debord 1970). If we code by the word ‘alienation’ the period in which the technocratic production developed, and code by the word ‘postmodern’ the period in which the cultural consumption developed, today we are confronted with a capitalism that is both postmodern and alienating, a capitalism that can stand upright on these two pillars. When one pillar falls into crisis, the other comes into operation, and capitalism, almost like a Godzilla monster, progresses by breaking and making every city, every neighbourhood, every structure and every organization.
In light of these developments, we would like to ask again: What are the real abstractions that combine and separate our consciousness and actions today? Our starting point is the question: What is capitalism? But we are not looking for a capitalism that stands outside or against us, we are not looking for a capitalism that have set up its headquarters at a particular location, we are looking directly for the capitalism that immediately permeates us, the capitalism that follows us like a shadow wherever we go. We would like to derive the diagram of the engine that runs capitalism. In a sense, we would like to reach at the genetic structure of the capitalist microbe that infects our unconscious.
Capitalism as a diagram
There exist many theories, many compatible or incompatible approaches on what capitalism is. But the point that is crucial, even more crucial than what capitalism is, is the certainty of capitalism’s existence. Today, at a time when even the existence of society is under dispute, the existence of capitalism is an indisputable reality, since everyone can comprehend it as a general combination of the daily actions within which people live. But one cannot go one step further from this point, because any distinction that determines non-capitalism is sooner or later negated by capitalism. How we see capitalism today, resembles the monism of Parmenides (Plato -370). Parmenides began from any difference and brought it to the One by logical means. As for us, wherever we escape, we are every time seized by our actions and handed in back to capitalism. Any direction of escape, be it however diverse, colorful or different, given enough time, is negated by the natural course that is called capitalism. That’s why we can reach nowhere by escaping to the outside of capitalism, we must reach directly at capitalism itself, capitalism in its most abstract sense.
Capitalism, thought in its abstract sense, cannot be located in a certain place. It would also be lacking to think it as a system of rules. If we think of our daily relationships, we can find traces of capitalism in every detail if we look for them, but particular objects or particular approaches cannot provide explanations. Moreover, if we take social media into consideration, even the worlds or the environments in which these objects or approaches encounter one another can be utterly different. Our experiences show that, even in all these circumstances, relationships can mesh with one another in a way to turn into an extension of capitalism. For this reason, we are going to base ourselves directly on the daily comprehension of capitalism as the conceptual ground.
Let us summarize the exchange abstraction as clarified by Alfred Sohn-Rethel: Production and consumption are kept temporally and spatially separate from one another. Our purpose is then to reveal how these two are kept separate. We want to find the diagram on which capitalism is based on today. In order to rely on the daily comprehension of capitalism, we leave aside scientific disciplines and systematic terminologies. To invoke capitalism’s two dimensions or two pillars —monopolistic production and cultural consumption— that took their present form in the last century, we name our diagram postmodern alienation model.
Postmodern alienation model
The whole diagram is shown on Figure 1. In this section we construct the diagram piece by piece beginning from the top.
The first and simplest term of the diagram is consumer, which originates from life in general. Consumer expresses the sustainment of a certain operating or living as a regular habituality. Consumer, as long as she does not encounter a discrepancy between herself and other objects, between other people and the world, continues exactly this traditional or mechanical perpetuity or inertia, this simple being of hers. Consumerhood expresses a state of affairs defined by Adorno and Horkheimer as ‘eating of flowers’ (Adorno and Horkheimer 2002). One can regard the stages of infancy and childhood in humans’ general development as situations where consumerhood is at the forefront in many ways. Regular family life, regular business life are also examples of consumerhood situations.
The stable state of the consumer can be disrupted in two different ways. We call these two aspects exigency and enjoyment.
Consumer either confronts an exigency and regards herself as useless or she confronts an enjoyment and regards herself as unsuccessful. In both cases, consumer adopts an attitude against her inertia and transitions into the condition of an addict. Approaches like ‘substance addiction’, ‘internet or game addiction’ are constituted by a change of attitude against consumerhood. This change of attitude takes place in two ways: as a need to be useful (exigency) or as a need to exist or be successful (enjoyment). Which of these two principles is going to be adopted changes completely the meaning of the addiction being ascertained.
If the ascertainment of addiction goes towards the direction of exigency, it adopts the principle of utility in order to become a user. User, as long as she cannot determine the utility she is looking for, finds herself in contradiction with other users: what is good use for one user appears to another user as a misuse. We call this problem abuse. Various users’ attempts to develop principles of utility in response to children’s situations as consumers/addicts emerge as the problem of ‘child abuse’. This problem is unsolvable, because it is impossible to determine the utilities that are going to limit the child’s enjoyment, just as it is impossible to foretell the future.
If the ascertainment of addiction goes towards the direction of enjoyment, it adopts the principle of success in order to become a player. Player expresses the general pursuit to exist, to show oneself and to be successful. Player, as long as she cannot determine the success that she pursues, finds herself in contradiction with other players: One player’s success appears as another player’s failure. We call this problem selfishness.
In this way, abuse and selfishness, as the two problems that arise from the indeterminations of utility and success, even if they can never come side by side, feed and support one another. These two problems correspond to the two factors defined by Freud as superego and id, as the primary system and the secondary system, as the reality principle and the pleasure principle (Freud 1955). As for the consumer/addict, we can see her as an ego at the intersection of these two forces, or we can liken it to death drive as compulsion to repeat an adopted habit.
User and player, insofar as they adopt different principles and insofar as they cannot concretize their aims, are found as separate and the distance between them is reflected within the problems they experience.
User, being busy with exigencies that require utilities, projects all of the enjoyment onto a focal point that stays distant from her. We call this focal point conspirator. User, in the indeterminate utilitarian situation that she is in, assimilates the conspirator that is seen at a distance with the problem of abuse being experienced and enters into a paranoid approach. A user can surpass the paranoia she experiences only by concretizing the utility she is looking for, i.e. by becoming authorized.
On the other hand, player, being busy with enjoyments that desire successes, projects all of the exigency onto a focal point that stays distant from her. We call this focal point fate. Player, in her indeterminate situation, assimilates the fate that is seen at a distance with the problem of selfishness being experienced and enters into a cynical approach. A player, in order to surpass this cynicism, must concretize the success she pursues, i.e. she must embody.
The concretizations of users and players become possible with reciprocal authority-body matchings, because utility and existence/success can gain meaning only with respect to one another. The authorization of a user and the embodiment of a player occurs reciprocally and expresses an objective matching between the exigency and enjoyment that they represent. As an example of this, we can mention the company-worker couple. While the worker needs the company in order to exist and be successful, the company needs the worker in order to provide utility.
Since the principles that motivate the situations of players and users are not translatable to one another, we are speaking not of a uniting but of a matching of an authority and a body. The place where an authority and a body is matched —like the cellular membrane that distinguishes living matter from the fluid substance it floats in— is a line of boundary that distinguishes bodily enjoyments from authorized exigencies. These lines of boundary, drawn by means of the matchings of authorities with bodies, constitute the objective being of capitalism. On the diagram, this objectivity is expressed by the dashed line that separates the authority-body couple.
Authority-body couples are quantitatively measurable, because they are objective. A matching can have more than one quantitative measurement. Due to the separateness of the two forces, such a quantitative measurement expresses two different meanings — with respect to the authority and with respect to the body. For example, salary, which quantifies the boss-worker couple, is a measurement of existence and success with respect to the worker, while also being a measurement of utility with respect to the boss.
The objective existence of capitalism, indicated as ‘modern life’ in the diagram, consists of building stones that we call authority-body couples. These couples can be found as a collection, they can form long chains or trees with intricate branchings. For example, take a company. It is an authority in face of the worker body, while it is also a brand body in face of the client’s authority to purchase. The same couple can be juxtaposed in opposite directions, for example the authority-body couples that constitute a wife-husband relationship can be in different directions.
We can also ascertain authority-body couples in the cultural field. The diagram of the hero’s journey, as composed by Joseph Campbell in consequence to his mythological researches, utilized in the scriptwriting in Hollywood culture industry, is instructive with this regard (Campbell 1949; Vogler 1998).
The hero’s journey begins in the ordinary world that authorizes the hero for the adventure, it continues in the special world where she succeeds by proving her bodily existence, and finally ends in the hero’s ordinary world to which she then returns to be useful. This diagram, when we interpret it in terms of authorization and embodiment, carries significant resemblances with the home-workplace-home movement that is the daily loop of the modern individual, even with the weekly and yearly work-holiday-work loops.
So, when the problems of abuse and selfishness are solved or managed by the realization of a reciprocal authorization and embodiment, what happens to the focal points that we have called conspirator and fate? As a result of the authorization, conspirator turns into a will on which this authority relies. As a result of the embodiment, fate turns into a system on which this body relies. On the diagram, the will-system couple below the authority-body couple expresses the result of these operations. Moreover, the will on which the authority relies, is going to become an origin for the body of that authority. Likewise, the system on which the body relies, is going to become an origin for the authority of that body. We showed these additional relationships of origination with the green crosswise links.
We have said that an authority and a body can exist objectively as a couple, but as the will on which the authority relies and the system on which the body relies constitute the ground of this objectivity, these other two terms do not exist objectively, they can only be indicated indirectly through the objectivity of this authority and this body. Authority refers to the will as its support and reliance, and it indicates the system as its origin. On the other hand, body refers to the system as its support and reliance, and it indicates the will as its origin.
For example, commodity is a body that creates price by being matched with an authority to purchase. Marx tells in Capital Volume One: “The body of the commodity, which serves as the equivalent, always figures as the embodiment of abstract human labour, and is always the product of some specific useful and concrete labour.” (Marx 1992) The ‘abstract human labour’ that is embodied in the commodity is what we call here player/selfishness. Whereas the ‘useful and concrete labour’ expresses the will on which the authority to purchase relies on.
The fourth subjective attitude that emerges after the consumer that expresses a life perpetuated in an inertia, the user who is based on the principle of utility and the player who is based on the principle of success, is the developer. The attitude of a consumer expressed an indifference in face of authorities and bodies, the attitude of a user expressed a search of authorization and the attitude of a player expressed a pursuit of embodiment. The attitude of a developer means to indicate the supports and reliances of the existing authorities and bodies, i.e. it means to indicate the will and the system relevant to the authorities and the bodies that are present. In order to be able to follow the way in which the relationships that we call capitalism progress with the successive determinations of exigencies and enjoyments, one must indicate will as the enjoyment on which each exigency sets foot on, and system as the exigency on which each enjoyment sets foot on. Developer can only create and maintain oneself as a subject by the dual tracking of these two terms. (For an account of this self-repeating structure as antiprogression chain, see Dialectics of Game Design (Fidaner 2014))
Adorno, T., and Horkheimer, M. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. California: Stanford University Press.
Campbell, J. 1949. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Harper Collins.
Plato -370. Parmenides. Athens: Academia.
Debord, G. 1970. Society of The Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red.
Fidaner, I. B. 2014. Dialectics of Game Design. İstanbul: Game Dasein.
Freud, S. 1955. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Basic Books.
Lem, S. 1961. Solaris. Warsaw: MON.
Marx, K. 1992. Capital Volume One. London: Penguin Books.
Sohn-Rethel, A. 1998. Intellectual Labour and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology. London: Macmillan Press.
Vogler, C. 1998. The Writer’s Journey. California: Michael Wiese Productions.
Işık Barış Fidaner is an independent computer scientist. Developed the entropic text analysis tool REBUS 2.0. Scientific work accessible at https://fidaner.wordpress.com/science. Various english2turkish translations published at http://yersizseyler.wordpress.com/kitap. Member of Sakareller and Alternatif Bilişim.
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