The dirty (big) secret of capital

1. In the Confessions, Rousseau famously describes his secret desire as a child of eight for the punishment given to him by a nursemaid, whose hand “determined my tastes, my desires, my passions, myself for the rest of my life” and that when he entered puberty, “tormented for a long time without knowing by what, I devoured beautiful women with an ardent eye; solely to make use of them in my fashion, and to make so many Mlle Lamberciers out of them”. After the first instance, Rousseau “required all the truth of that affection [for Mme. Lambercier] and all my natural goodness to keep me from seeking the repetition of the same treatment by deserving it: for I had found in the suffering, even in the shame, an admixture of sensuality which had left me with more desire than fear to experience it a second time from the same hand”. The spanking would only occur one other time, after which Rousseau and his brother, who had previously slept in her room, were sent to sleep in a separate room, the honor of which he “could very well have dispensed” but, nevertheless, was regretfully that of “being treated by her as a big boy”.

Rousseau’s infatuation with older women would continue into his teenage years when, at about the age of sixteen or seventeen, inflamed by desire and fantasies of women, and yet unwilling to act, he would instead skulk in “dark alleys [and] hidden nooks where I could expose myself from afar to persons of the opposite sex”. However, Rousseau immediately notes that he “would not dream” of flashing them the “obscene object”; rather, they saw “the ridiculous object”, which had been spanked as a child, and “the foolish pleasure I had in displaying it to their eyes cannot be described. There was only one step to take from that to feeling the desired treatment, and I do not doubt that some bold one would have given me this amusement while passing by, if I had had the audacity to wait” (one can only imagine Rousseau giggling and scurrying away).

Rousseau wants for no audacity in these confessions, admitting that the memory of pissing into the cooking pot of a neighbor while she was at church as a child “still makes me laugh”. Rousseau understands that, as Foucault argues, those who enjoin us to confess “what one is and what one does … what one is thinking and what one thinks he is not thinking—are [not] speaking to us of freedom”. Unlike the priestly confession, however, Rousseau’s confessions lack the sacramental seal of shame and humility and, thus, the “shimmering mirage” (Foucault) of the truth between the confessor’s words. There are only the words and a defiant smirk; Rousseau never becomes “the subject of the statement” to one who prescribes the ritual of confession and who is thus liberated by it (compare, for example, the objections to the misunderstandings of his work in the Reveries and Dialogues). Rousseau, of course, was fully aware of the dialectic of liberation and subjection (e.g., in the famous statement of bondage in The Social Contract) and affirms their identity-in-difference by his insistence that the truth of his confessions lies not in what is meant by his words but simply in what is said (“I have nothing to hide”).

2. In an essay made famous by Auerbach, Montaigne admits that “I very rarely repent, and that my conscience is satisfied with itself, not as the conscience of an angel, or that of a horse, but as the conscience of a man”. The angel’s will is immovable, Aquinas says, and so the virtues that satisfy us would be of disinterest to a higher nature. Sin, “which is lodged in us as in its own proper habitation” thus admits of no true repentance: “one may disown and retract the vices that surprise us, and to which we are hurried by passions; but those which be a long habit are rooted in a strong and vigorous will are not subject to contradiction [and thus no repentance]. Repentance is no other but a recanting of the will and an opposition to our fancies, which lead us which way they please” (emphasis added). Thus the true moral dictate is not that of repentance but sincerity, particularly in the face of the contingencies of our nature and our fate. We cannot reveal ourselves in our essential truth:

I cannot fix my object; ‘tis always tottering and reeling by a natural giddiness … I do not paint its being, I paint its passage … I must accommodate my history to the hour: I may presently change, not only by fortune but also by intention. ‘Tis a counterpart of various and changeable accidents, and of irresolute imaginations, and, as it falls out, sometimes contrary: whether it be that I am then another self, or that I take subjects by other circumstances and considerations: so it is that I may peradventure contradict myself, but, as Demades said, I never contradict the truth. Could my soul once take footing, I would not essay but resolve: but it is always learning and making trial [emphases added].

The self-representation that Montaigne offers – as a representation of the human condition or “my universal being” – therefore admits of no “inner” truth whose general form is inaccessible to others. That which is admired or reviled of our public semblance is of less consequence than the mundane habits of our private life (no one is a hero to the chambermaid, Montaigne observes). The truth of a life lies not in its honors, deeds, or ideals – and much less in its approbations and validations – in short, not in its truth but in its inanity. The most for which one can hope is not rightness nor redemption but the sincerity of speaking of one’s “ill-fashioned” nature that, “if I had to model him anew, I should certainly make something else than what he is but that’s past recalling”, i.e., not from the regret of what might have been but the tranquility of an ordinary life.

3. What Montaigne never saw, however, are the conditions of modern life that not only generate the compulsory demands of truth but the structures that render the most ordinary truths about ourselves unspeakable and simultaneously alienating while expressing perhaps the fundamental truth of capital.

Lazzarato has described the asignifying semiotics of the economy that “act on things. They connect an organ, a system of perception, an intellectual activity, and so on, directly to a machine, procedures, and signs, bypassing the representations of a subject … Stock market indicies, unemployment statistics, scientific diagrams and functions, and computer languages produce neither discourses nor narratives” and act directly on the material flows that comprise the fundamental ontology of capital, bypassing the classical subjects of knowledge or labor. Lazzarato’s analysis thus indicates that to grasp the truth of capital we must look neither to its meaning or its content (e.g., in alienation) but to its form:

what matters to capitalism is controlling the asignifying semiotic apparatuses (economic, scientific, technical, stock-market, etc.) through which it aims to depoliticize and depersonalize power relations. The strength of asignifying semiotics lies in the fact that, on the one hand, they are forces of ‘automatic’ evaluation and measurement and, on the other hand, they unite and make ‘formally’ equivalent heterogeneous spheres of asymmetrical force and power by integrating them into and rationalizing them for economic accumulation.

Individuals are thus de-subjectivized and dissolved by these apparatuses; “if our societies are no longer based on individuals, they are not based on language either” (as Nietzsche observed, we have rid ourselves of neither God nor our selves because we still believe in grammar).

Lazzarato’s insight can be generalized: the autonomy of capital from the individual is at once ontological, semiotic, and logical. This truth of capital is one that can be neither represented nor spoken in the language of capitalism except through the cultural (hence “unofficial”) prohibitions on revealing the most ordinary and ubiquitous facts about ourselves. We are enjoined, for example, never to ask what someone else makes nor to volunteer that information; we are compelled to hide the truth. Of course, this practice serves familiar bourgeois interests of management and preserves the importance of pecuniary conspicuousness described by Veblen. But, more than that, this fact about ourselves can only be expressed as both a confession but also as a penitence, given that no matter what our answer, we must face the shame that it is insufficient or the guilt that it is too much. We can never give a right answer since, of course, the truth that we are obliged to reveal is not a truth about us at all; it is a truth about the indifference of capital to the value of a human life, which cannot be expressed by capitalism and yet that must be constructed as the only truth about the individual that matters (“what do you do?”), since it is the only truth that can be encoded into the signifying apparatuses of its machines. As Foucault observed, rather than being a rebellion against the repressive demand to stay silent, our confession produces the structures of power that render the truth unspeakable in the first place. The intolerable presumption of capital is that it foists its secret upon us while demanding at every turn that we wear it on our sleeves; unlike Rousseau, however, we do not have the luxury of insolence.

Tragedy I (1 SEPT 2005; edited 5 JUL 2007)

There is a political message in Inferno XXIV: “Now you must cast aside your laziness / … / … for he who rests on down / or under covers cannot come to fame; / and he who spends his life without renown / leaves such a vestige of himself on earth / as smoke bequeaths to air or foam to water”. But this “renown”, as Hegel showed us, is only the reciprocal recognition of one’s love in the world. One loves the world by becoming its mirror (I wonder if the converse is true). That the intrepid wanderer refers himself to the Christ is well-known; this is why Dante’s Christianity prefigured Hegel by 500 years.

Dante’s “io sol uno” becomes, in Montaigne, “je le recite [l’homme]”. Montaigne describes a man and not, as Rousseau, of man. Thus the innocent naïveté of Montaigne vis-à-vis the totalitarian naivete of Rousseau. “If the world finds fault with me for speaking too much of myself,” Montaigne says, “I find fault with the world for not even thinking of itself!” What could be farther from the modernity that has come to us in the guise of bourgeois liberal democracy? Mimesis is mandatory because we are never ‘outside’ the world. Auerbach was on to something here; so too was Nietzsche who asked whether he could show us this world—this “zoological monstrosity” as Jameson says—in his mirror. But as we know, it was Nietzsche’s own shadow that drove him to madness. … And perhaps that is the fate of any truly ethical engagement with the world.

A friend of mine likes to say she is “broken”, as if this were an insight. We “pull ourselves together” every morning. We do it better or worse, but we must do it constantly. There are times we “lose ourselves”, but is not psychic activity nothing else than the assemblage of an identity in fragments? There is, as Bergson points out, only memory.