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Estrangement and Power Generation

November 28, 2010

The shape of human history has been fundamentally designed by the struggle to comprehend the place of the human being within the greater phenomena of the universe. More specifically, we have wrestled with the sense of the ego—of experiencing consciousness, recognizing it in other humans, evaluating its presence in the non-human world, and grappling with the finitude of the ‘self’ that it seems to imply. Of this struggle have been born countless monuments—a projection of the self onto the world in a way seeming to scratch for transcendence from temporality. Likewise, the struggle has born religion and science. Yet on an individual level, we are still insecure. Theories may provide a limited solace, but at every moment we are still faced with the disconcerting phenomenon of relating self to other, and often find ourselves feeling like islands in a sea of uncertainty. In spite of this though, we still constantly struggle to establish bridges between one another and between ourselves and the non-human universe. These bridges are often flimsy and can only carry certain forms of light traffic. Sometimes however, they are strong; in these moments we feel connectivity and communion, bliss. We seem to strive for these connections. There is power in this pursuit and desire, and until the advent of modern consumerist market capitalism the power was mostly unharnessed. Today however, it has become the tool of the political and socio-economic system, driving the gears that reinforce its own dominance and control.

My analysis of this process must not be taken as an attempt at an objective truth. Despite the strongly affirmative tone with which some portions of the paper are written, one of the ideological lenses through which the analysis must be understood is the conceptual framework that each person’s world and understanding thereof is a compilation of personal experience—all based in the same material world, but experienced in highly variable ways, manifesting entirely differential epistemic terrain. In this light, all my analyses must be viewed as strictly the product of my own experience and reflection. Much of the basis for my conclusions in this analysis come from my own experiences struggling with the manipulative forces detailed therein. Needless to say, I have also been aided immeasurably by experiences and understandings relayed to me from others through interpersonal communication which is itself highly subjective yet, I think, as I will later articulate, absolutely crucial to the human experience and to the construction of understandings. Importantly, it must be understood that when the “individual” is invoked as a demonstrative agent, the person invoked is the type-A consumerist. There may be nobody alive like our “individual,” or alternatively, everybody could be her. Almost certainly the unquantifiable region of the majority of people would lie somewhere scattered between the poles; our “individual” may be closer to the extreme than many. Let us begin on a rather large existential, philosophical note; the nature of ecology, humanity, society, and ego.

We are not things, but processes—sets of relationships. This is the case of all the universe. We are not made of immutable, constant material, but of cycles of nutrients that, through infinitely complex sun-driven ecology and human-driven economics (the latter a subset of the former), manifest the food that we eat and thereby our bodies on to form the neural pulses that make our minds able to retain thought, and likewise those that allow us motion to manifest these thoughts into concrete impressions on the world—mirrors of ourselves outwardly. With our own unique experiences we build understandings, epistemic frameworks, aesthetics, ideas, and philosophies—the constantly shifting architecture of our minds. This dynamic collage of experiences then, is the lens through which our material lives are constructed, influencing everything from the way we organize our belongings, to the way we treat strangers and lovers, to our willingness to engage in particular sorts of labor and lifestyles. In this sense, the limits to the human being are blurry at best. Despite the illusion of ego, the patterns that collectively manifest the human being, and those that the human being in turn manifests, extend throughout the biosphere and the universe. In scattered moments, we are granted fleeting realization of this continuity. These moments seem to connotate strongly with feelings of bliss: in deep conversations, in meditation, in empathy, in love, in sex, in physical exertion and sports, and in the manifestation of ideas and aesthetics materially through art and labor. In all of these situations, the self seems to have been tangibly breached and seems to flow outwards into the non-human universe and vice versa. It is these moments by which we endow life with meaning and value.

There is a great power in this desire for individual affirmation of human community and continuity within the greater world. The volition of such a deeply rooted force, for most of the history of human society, has been a prerequisite for the development of economies and societies. Like a river, the force has always progressed via its own internal momentum and collective cohesion through the surrounding geographies, carving intricate landforms in its travels—coercive societies might have tried to silence and divide people, but responses inevitably arose through grassroots community creation such as unions or other social movements. In this sense, governing societal forces have always had to chart the geography of the river and make allowance for it; either this, or confront it with force that has never managed to sustain itself under the water’s erosive and kinetic power. Today, it seems that things have changed. Finally, a system of socio-economic governance has grown powerful enough to dam the river and harvest its energy for the sake of reinforcing and perfecting its own strength. This system is modern market capitalism.

The manner in which market capitalism has managed to harness the human drive for experience and self-transcendence is complex and multi-fold, and moreover it is unique to all who face it. Despite its complexity, we can generalize the process as such: an effort to re-route the human inclination towards transcendental experience through the market by creating ever-more complicated marketable surrogates for previously unmarketable experiences, and simultaneously deconstructing alternatives. This process occurs on countless levels of the human drive for meaningful experience, yet this analysis will focus on one specific battlefront: the human interpersonal community.

As fundamentally communal creatures, we are inexorably reliant on interpersonal interaction. It is through the process of communalism that our subsistence is guaranteed, and likewise it is largely through a collective societal memory that we build our own conceptions of our world, and strategies for interacting with it. Ideally, we both contribute to defining our community and are in turn defined by it, mutually. Here, individuals are holistically incorporated into a larger social organism, again moving towards individual egotistical transcendence. Today the flow is far more unilateral, with the projected cultural values pointing directly towards marketed spheres of communal interaction. Transition to and maintenance of this top-down format of socio-cultural orchestration incorporates both psychological and material forces that work towards denying the possibility of alternative flows of cultural production.

Community and cultural generation are intimately intertwined with economics, as exchange of both material and ideological resources. In this exchange, relationships and dependencies are built on the local level, through which unique, locally defined sets of values and aesthetics eventually grow. To guarantee uncontested access to culture-generation and to continue the growth of the formal economy, this had to be dissolved. This process has existed always in centrally organized society, but began definitively in the extreme manifestation that exists today via geographic manipulation. The key to this transformation was the development of the personal automobile. With this innovation and the resulting increase in individual mobility, housing could become geographically separate from loci of economic activity. This movement of estrangement was reinforced and to a large extent driven by a rapid geographic and economic expansion of dominant productive enterprises such as corporations, resulting in a similar geographic decentralization. Here however, interpersonal alienation and geographic ambiguity became compounded, as modes of participation in economic enterprises evolved to be more and more specialized, separating workers from the holistic functions of their organization, and even the service or product produced by it.

As a result of these patterns of separation, networks of allegiance and interaction between constituent individuals in the economic network became increasingly decoupled from any physical geographic space, thereby fostering an increasing intangibility of interpersonal reliance and solidarity, and a disempowerment of local agency over culture-generation. This phenomenon exists to a degree in lower-class populations, yet typically grows steadily with increased economic prosperity.

It has been argued that stronger technologies act to immediately counter this alienating geography by making it irrelevant. Let us examine first, the source of these new developments. The march of science and technology today is not powered by human need per say, but by the market. While free-market fundamentalists will claim that the market is a reflection of these needs, in reality its only language for this reflection is monetary, and thus demands to creators of technologies only the creation of more commodities and capitalized spaces, even if this is, at the root of the issue, antithetical to the needs of the population. Beyond this, the prerequisite for marketed technology, and truly most anything constructed in a capitalist society, is its ability to produce profit and reproduce the basis for profit-producing activities. For this reason, the engineers and technicians that contribute to the construction of our world and evolving lifestyles have the interest and obligation to cater to this system. If this were not enough of a direct control on research into new technology and science, corporations and other profit-based institutions now employ most engaged in research and scientific enterprise; the institution then, instructs the direction of all research, severely limiting freedom of thought and development. By this process, discoveries by these people and the institutions in which they work constantly entrench the current paradigm.

A perfect example of this process, in addition to that of the automobile already discussed, is the advent of personal communication devices. Communicative devices’ interactions with society can be exemplified by the development of the cellular phone, which, despite working to connect geographically separate individuals, in doing so further negates physical community—as these tools become crucial to social interaction, social interaction loses the necessity of face-to-face contact. Moreover, access to community becomes reliant on a marketed technology, and thus the cellular phone becomes the commodity prerequisite to a functional social life. Finally, as possession of such technology becomes presupposed, physical infrastructure adjusts to this new paradigm in the same way it adjusted to the automobile, and its necessity becomes fossilized in the body of the human settlement.

Despite the strength of geographic isolation, this process alone cannot solidify top-down socio-cultural design. The need for interpersonal interaction as a vehicle for self-transcendence—the river—will overflow this dam if this is all that is provided; somehow the water must be channeled, guided, towards the dam’s turbines so that it may pass through the structure and generate power. In other words, conduits must be provided for expanded top-down cultural flows to replace localized patterns of cultural production. This too happened, at first, geographically. With the disestablishment of most forms of non-marketed common-space, the opportunity arose for the creation marketed incarnations of such spaces. The sole loci for social congregation became areas where such congregation encouraged market participation; malls and nightclubs, among other marketed spaces, became key points of interaction. Let us examine specifically the instance of the nightclub as a way of understanding this process.

In the nightclub, frustrated sexual energy that is engendered by a culture of sexual mystification perpetuated by media images thereof is released. The sacredness of sex can be understood in its self-transcendental capabilities—parties involved in consensual sexuality find themselves in a highly mutualist situation, in which both sensation and physical separation of individuals is surpassed. Still, to complete this unification, the parties involved must have a deep understanding of one another on a personal level. In the venue, loud music negates conversation, and alcohol and a highly sensual atmosphere created through dancing encourages physical sexuality but not meaningful interpersonal relations.

In this sense, in spite of sexuality’s potential for individual transcendence, parties involved often fail to perceive or engage in the totality of this aspect. This disconnection and lack of fulfillment prompts a turn to marketed sources of this connection, be they commodities marketed to people affected by the insecurity of this isolation, or simply further trips to the nightclub. By charging money for admission and for alcohol, the nightclub succeeds in capitalizing on and essentially commodifying repression-based sexuality.

In essence, by constructing social gathering arenas in such a way as to play on the desires of the individual based on alienation from community and meaningful interpersonal interaction, these insecurities become capitalized, driving the turbines of the market. Moreover, the manner in which these spaces are constructed deliberately encourages certain forms of human interaction and denies others. This is, in a sense, the continued recreation of the forces that underpin the institution in the first place.

Despite having ritualized loci of marketized community interaction however, the individual’s search for community must include deeper shades of self-identification. The mainstream media and entertainment became channels towards this construction of identity. Having been denied the strong, physical, interpersonal community that is, as previously discussed so fundamental to the human experience, the individual becomes desperate for a feeling of belonging and externalized self-identification. Through media-streams, this belonging is idealized and commodified by the phenomenon of brand tribalism. These brand-tribes may incorporate a diversity of products and corporate producers thereof, but are unified in particular lifestyle traits; through advertisement and media imagery, particular products are endowed with these specific lifestyle aesthetics that in turn are connotated with sets of values, pass-times, and most importantly, an overall culture. Espousing this particular brand-based aesthetic then becomes equated with a form of community that can be only be realized through market-based activity.

Because the common ground of brand-tribes is defined by selected lifestyle aesthetics which are in turn constructed by the brand itself, interpersonal interaction based on this aesthetic often lies within distinct limits—people attracted to one another based on their similar commodity profiles will have an aesthetic in common, but not necessarily anything else. Traits most strongly connotated with the shared aesthetic are thereby valued most highly as tools of social valuation. This encourages brand-tribe members to focus on cultivating this aesthetic and not other aspects of themselves, necessitating further consumption, and also a neglect of pursuits, habits, and interests not in line with the aesthetic. A brand’s ability to define this aesthetic allows it to essentially define the values of its constituent consumer-population. Collectively, as capitalist enterprises, traits that are valued and perpetuated are those most conducive to further consumption. Hereby once again the process is able to actively cultivate its presuppositions within common culture.

Through the spatial and psychological processes discussed above, desire for community is used to turn the dam’s turbines and power is harnessed. In the same moment, illusionary communities are created that are entirely manipulable by productive institutions. Rivalries are created between tribes over ideas and practices that are not threatening to the overall power structure, and constituents are distracted in them. As a result, the focus of the general public is shifted into apolitical spheres that all contribute to further market empowerment.

The situation of community in relation to aesthetics and values defined by the market has reached a new stage however, with the emergence of virtual social networking. It can be said that this revolution in community-development and human interaction is able to foster stronger democracy in interpersonal communication by drawing connections in a geographically disconnected world. With deeper examination however, we see the result to be quite the opposite. In fact, the phenomenon is a sort of culmination of the processes already discussed, weaving them together into an entirely new sphere of social life.

The way in which social networking websites influence social interaction is, in one sense, comparable to the cellular phone and automobile in their ability to construct new prerequisites for the development of social life. Here, the art of organic interpersonal relationship building becomes partly obsolete, and people become reliant on the tool of the social networking website to assist in the process.

Beyond producing dependencies, a pile of marketed technology and associated know-how far taller than either the cell phone or auto are required for use of the tool. In this sense, while community building is strengthened in some aspects, this strength requires a very large market investment, benefiting producers of this technology. Moreover, while some circles see increased connectivity, those without the economic resources to access these technologies are not included in the new online community, further fueling class-division.

In another sense, we can see traces of the mall, the nightclub, and the brand-tribe in the phenomenon of the social networking site. In this sense, we must look at the sort of social interaction encouraged by these new spheres of interaction. Most social networking sites encourage some of the process of self-description to take place in the form of text. These descriptions must be short, and result in the necessary act of condensing identity into a sort of itemized list, leading to a certain idealization of the self based on aesthetics that often are kept in line with brand-tribe imagery.

Additionally, a large emphasis is placed on photography as a medium of communication. As a result, the digital camera has become a vital component of social interaction and personal activity. In constantly linking photos to personal profiles, the profile’s creator must ensure that image and content are unified. As a result, social interaction and life in general become constructed around maintaining an idealized personal identity and aesthetic. In a sense, all of life becomes a sort of act—the cultivation of an image. This image is often built around a mix of marketed aesthetics, requiring even more flawless alignment of one’s life thereto. Moreover, the objective of aesthetic self-representation is so influenced by marketed lifestyle aesthetics that the two phenomena take on many similar characteristics. In this sense, the individual’s self-representation becomes, to a large extent, self-marketing. Here, despite entering this sphere of social networking in order to build community, the exact opposite event occurs as egoism grows, contributing to feelings of isolation that stoke alienation; a positive feedback loop develops as this alienation increases desperation for self-transcendence. In this way, the particular kinds of communication allowed by social networking websites, when holistically understood, help filter interactions intended to build true community into a strengthening of the estrangement that first necessitated it.

Here we find the front-line of the commodity market’s advance into spheres of social life and personal self-identification. Finally, after compounded stages of estrangement between the individual and the community via the marketization of interpersonal relations, we have arrived at a stage where the self too has become a sort of brand to be marketed. It is a process that in turn empowers the market institutions responsible for building the paradigm of estrangement to begin with, despite the fact that it is fueled by a deep human desire to escape it.

The marketed person, despite her multitude of acquaintances, has a hard time finding real community; interactions have been reduced to spectacle, and friendships are built often between actors, not people. This is the archetype of the consumer. In having lost true community, she is individualized, reduced to an isolated, atomized unit. Still, the source of the emptiness is not clear. This individualized person scratches for a sense of connection, but the market cannot provide this.

Water pressure behind the dam needs an outlet—stored potential energy, a downhill force, must become kinetic; the estranged human being, the more his paradigm of alienation compounds itself, will fight ever-harder to pass the obstruction to self-transcendence and realization in community. To harness this energy, market capitalism has invented a brilliant system of pipe-work and turbines. As water passes through the dam, its kinetic energy is harnessed and its flow controlled. The power taken from it will not be returned, but used to build the dam higher and add more turbines. The process of establishing control over the powerful snaking river, over the human drive for self-transcendence, has been long and exists multifold. It employs a wide array of tactics and technologies and must constantly repair its internal architecture and build higher to stand up to the pressure it holds back.

There is a point however, when the dam will be unable to hold more turbines or more pressure, and when the topography of the area will be unable to hold higher water. Then it will flood. The river will wash over the dam and over the surrounding land and it will create a new path to follow, this we can be sure of. This process cannot be sustained. Still, we cannot know when this will be. It may be a long time. In the mean time, we must search for cracks in the dam or fissures in the mountains around it through which to drip, and then to widen and bore new paths. We must deposit the rich minerals of our river upon the gears and turbines of the machine, calcify them and halt them. We must drag our silt downstream and fill the lake-bottom, displace the volume of water there, displace the pressure built up, and eventually fill the channels that supply the turbines with sediment. One day the river will flow freely, the fish-migrations will resume, and life will flourish on its banks.

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