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Month: November, 2012

Markets and Selves

Recently, I attended the lecture of the esteemed political philosopher and public intellectual, Micahel Sandel. The second of this year’s Tanner Lectures on Ethics, Citizenship, and Public Responsibility, Sandel’s talk centered around the theme of his most recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. I haven’t read the book. Though, judging by the talk (and a few reviews) it seems perfectly clear what the book is about, and it’s a reiteration of a story that’s been told in more or less the same way since at least since the late 19th century: We’ve transitioned from a market economy to a market society, wherein more and more areas of life are subject to market mechanisms; the market erodes existing values that foster a sense of debate about larger questions of morality and the public good; our political discourse suffers from this trend, reduced now to series of shouting matches that lead, at best, to political stalemate.

In the world of political philosophy, Sandel is best known for his communitarian critique of liberalism, along with the likes of Alasdair MacIntyre and, to a lesser extent, Michael Walzer, all of whom launched what seemed like collective expression of dissatisfaction with liberal thought in the late 70s and 80s. In his book, Liberalism and The Limits of Justice, Sandel took issue with one of the signal pronouncements of liberal (and socialist) political philosophy in the twentieth-century, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. He criticized Rawls’s “original position” for abstracting the human being from its community and arguing, on Kantian grounds, that the self (along with other selves), shorn of its commitments to social values, will necessarily act in accordance with the dictates of rationality, without any contingent or situated laws or norms. For Rawls the un-situated self in the original position meant that, along with others in the same position, there exists a situation of equilibrium in which participants will act out of rational self-interest to attain a position that will be mutually agreeable to all. The logic of Rawls’s view was that people acting out of self-interest, and without a sense of situatedness or contingency, will agree inherently on the principle of liberty, but will also be necessarily risk-averse, ideally causing them to assent to provisions for the least well off.

On Sandel’s account, this was wholly unrealistic, because the “original position” assumes that we could ever be “unsituated,” that is, unconditioned by circumstance. In other words, we can never escape, as Heidegger put it, our “thrownness.” Like Alsadair MacIntyre, Sandel argued that without a conception of the public good a priori (which is not to say the content of that good), then public deliberation and public life is unthinkable. Add Sandel’s vision of a “market society” into the equation, and public life seems like a foregone conclusion.

Sandel cajoled the audience into considering why it is that the encroachment of market forces into more and more areas of life deemed “off-limits” is in fact Bad. With a capital B. Fair enough. By way of public discussion (the model of the town hall forum wistfully longed after by those longing for a so-called “revival” of civic life), Sandel wanted the audience to reach a point at which, by considering examples such as putting a fifty thousand dollar price tag on immigration in order to solve a social problem by market mechanisms, they would realize that, “Hey, the market can’t solve all of our problems; we’re human beings damn it, and social problems can’t be solved with money.” But what Sandel cavalierly leaves out of the story, aside from the fact that it is at this point a hopeless and sentimental paean, is just what he means by “markets” and what their existence and proliferation might say about us as human beings.

If in fact we take an industrialized market economy as the underwriter of the “social-self,” freed from the moorings of the traditional family and work lives, then Sandel may have been right to cast such strong doubt on Rawls’s deontological self. But as we find ourselves in a globalized world underwritten by financial capitalism, then we must take that society on its own terms, and allow it to disclose to us something we keep hidden from ourselves, something we don’t really want to know about ourselves. Many on the left decry this society and the attendant self-interestedness, self-absorption, and “narcissism” it has wrought. Others, like James Livingston, see in that same society the creation of new resources through which that society might become more just. If in fact these represent two ends of a spectrum on which our political imaginary rests, then it’s safe to say that Sandel would find himself at home with the former. What’s more interesting, however, what’s arguably a more vital resource for political change is precisely what the polarization itself obscures. But can we see the clearing?

Sandel’s goal is a more robust public life, a view of the good that values deliberative democracy and debate over large questions of public morality, as the key to a vibrant political and moral life. But insofar as the markets he decries have made issues of the good into fungible assets and commodities, then the question becomes this: Who is to say that such an idyllic public forum won’t result in a stalemate reflective of a larger culture of nihilism?

You might say that the over-extension of markets is, arguably, one of the causes of such nihilism, and so if you rein in markets then agreement on what constitutes the good might become a more realistic possibility. But, in fact, our nihilism has nothing to do with markets. It seems, rather, that it is the collective expression, and culmination of what Rienhold Niebuhr described as our divided self. That self contains two tensions perennially at odds with each other, and explains both the beauty and wonder of late capitalism and the horror and injustice it has wrought. On the one side of that self is the fact that, as human beings, our highest degree of self-realization can only be found in the lives of others, a fundamental paradox because the self that seeks fulfillment in others is a self that can no longer be. Freud called this the death drive. Along with sex, he rightly noted that its sublimation lies at the heart of every human vitality, both individual and collective, political and social, artistic and cultural. There can in fact be no limitations placed on these vitalities, except for the fact that, while they are the most beautiful parts of human being-in-the-world, they are, as the other side of the self, also the most destructive. At the individual level, Niebuhr attributed this to the fundamental fact of self-interest contained in every human being, her will-to-power which, when expressed on the collective level, can be, and usually is, profoundly destructive. Thus it is that human history contains the most awesome triumphs along with the most destructive and evil forces. This is, I think, what Joseph Schumpter had in mind when described capitalism as a process of “Creative Destruction.”

The human being divided against herself is expressed in the nihilistic atmosphere of late capitalism: it contains the richest, most varied artistic and intellectual cultures, yet it is underwritten by the profoundest injustice and exploitation. As Walter Benjamin put it, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

The forces of privatization and the general creep of market forces into domains that should remain sacred are facts of the last four decades that should be reckoned with. But how?  Recourse to a public good of deliberative democracy by condemning “markets” outright fails to consider the ways in which the market itself is controlled by the indeterminate nature of human desire which, if left unchecked, leaves us in the situation we find ourselves in today. That is to say, the reality of a perpetual conflict of interests and desires, our clashing of wills-to-power, soberly diagnosed by Niebuhr and, for that matter, James Madison, is a more fundamental issue today than the forces of markets themselves.

For Niebuhr, the arbiter of such conflicts was reason, which is “organically related to a particular center of vitality, individual and collective,” and which serves to “limit expansive impulses by coercion.” Herein lays a crucial point. Reason is nothing but the claim to community, and requires the necessity of coercion to keep the destructive side of our inordinate desires, individual and collective, from wreaking destruction within and without. It is a claim that recognizes human vitality, mutability, and proliferation as both the source of our ills and triumphs, and necessitates coercion as mediating factor between the two. Insofar as reason, in this sense, is bound up with the acknowledgment of human frailty and finitude, which is in fact fallibility, and thus recognizes that the “claim of reason” rests on nothing more than our fragile and multiple claims to community, then the use of coercion in order to maintain elements of community necessarily translates into competing claims on what community is. Power will only meet power. And the claims of power in this sense will always represent the competition of interests enshrined by Madison in the constitution, and articulated by Niebuhr.

In the case of combating privatization, neo-liberalism, and the encroachment of the market, then, what is required is a sober recognition that the market does not itself stand at odds with the public good, but that we stand at odds with ourselves. In the throes of late-capitalism, acknowledging this condition means acknowledging that we can in fact be “in” and not “of” this world, as James Livingston denies, as an acknowledgment of the fact that the desire for transcendence and sublimation is contained in our proliferating technological culture fostered by financial and global capitalism: our facebooks, and iPhones, the virtual worlds we create for ourselves; these are not simply utilities, but the desire to be elsewhere, in other worlds. Insofar as we remain in “this” world, however, a world that we in fact create and amend, then coming to terms with it does not mean waiting to be saved in the next life, but acknowledging that there is no real limit placed upon the human imagination, her desire to be elsewhere, her drive toward virtual self-effacement. Insofar as this is a fact of fallibility, then it should act as a sober reassessment of the human capacity for evil, for destruction, and injustice.

Recourse to public morality and the “Good,” as opposed to the nebulous “market,” fails to take this fact into account. And it is that failure that speaks to the sober reality that reason’s claim to community makes coercion necessary for justice, a fact that makes democracy both necessary and, as we see in our own case, perilous. As Niebuhr put it, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.”


-Erik Hmiel

Why Exult? Part II

When I asked “why exult” in my post under that title a few weeks ago, I really did mean it as a question. I was so plagued by that question for so long—some eon-filled years— that I finally wrote about it here on a wing and a prayer. I was hoping against hope that from somewhere an answer would be given.

My question was “Why exult in true connectedness, given the inevitability of loss?”

The post concerned the almost intolerable pain that can flood in upon the ending of times of utmost connection with another human being—the kind of connection that halts time and instead seamlessly unfolds something else entirely, as though minutes, hours, and days, were replaced by a new unending measure of pure bliss. When one’s entire being has reverberated with this rhapsody, who can calmly accept anything less?
No one. The problem is we have to. Or do we?

We have tried so hard, we mere mortals, to find a way not to. One of the ways is to do away with desire. If only we did not experience so much longing, so much yearning, so much desiring, we would not feel so much pain. Triumph over desire and the self will be at peace.

That might be true. But if so, what kind of peace is this? Is this the blissful eternity- drenched peace of union and communion with the beloved other or a soul-deadening solipsism? Perpetual re-enchantment at the font of the one desired or willed de- enchantment for the sake of an end to want?

So much of our culture seems—seems—to be about desire; signs everywhere seem to be encouraging it. The marketing-purchasing perpetual motion machine says it is right and good to want this thing, that thing, and everything. Even people are things, also to be desired. But of course the collapsing of the distance between desire and the thing or person desired in actuality can actually serve to kill desire. Immediate gratification moves in too quickly before desire can even assert itself.

Instead, the exultation of true connection might actually require the germination of longing, in the same way that it might be suffering that prepares the self for the deepest possible experience of shared bliss.

Why long? Because we have to. That is our story. But the message these days often seems to be that desire is undesirable, that it would be best not to have to long. Only attainment of the desired object brings happiness. But in fact, when we do not have to long, we often lose sight of what is longed-for altogether. Isn’t that a worse fate–permanent and irrevocable and soul-destroying?

This culture’s ambivalence about longing currently stands at epic proportions. It is not sure whether longing is good or not. It provides myths to tell us about where longing goes. Desire is present in the phase of infatuation when the experience of being with someone is new; it fades into oblivion in time. It is helpful, isn’t it, that we have discovered mathematical formulas for such things. Desire is attached to the rise and fall of hormones over the life course; this explains intense longing and its demise. Fixation on flaws in the particular human object itself, with a consumer culture’s cruel calculus, is but a thinly disguised rationale.

Such ideas are symptoms of a culture that does everything possible to starve desire of the very conditions it needs to thrive.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other….The value of a man is not in his skin, that we should touch him.”

This may not apply to all cases of exultation and loss, at least with equal salience. But something can be taken from this idea about the need for a certain perspective or vantage point, which can at least help us think about temporary partings or externally imposed limits or absences. Seeing something too close up at all moments might rule out the kind of contemplation of the loved one and the cherished connection that establishes an indelible impression of his or her value on the mind, heart, and soul. The time that lapses without the best is a painful reminder that the best is the best.

The desirability of allowing desire full play seems clear if desire is what allows the bond to be understood as a sacred one. This is a different kind of desire, thus it allows for a different kind of fulfillment. The enchantment and exultation that result from this rare kind of connection might only be possible because of the awareness of the possibility of separation as well as the experience of loss.


The other day I read a note from a dear friend whose company I miss, to say the least. The riptide of feeling felt nearly unbearable, the pain temporarily as bad as some of the worst physical hurts my body has borne. As it subsided, it was replaced immediately by gratitude at getting beyond this pain’s fearsome apogee, but simultaneously a desire for it not to stop. I didn’t understand that other desire until, in the days afterward, the memory of the painful emotion that had gripped me returned—now in fondness. It was an experience of exquisiteness, of supreme poignancy, of fullness. It brought a kind of completion, through a moment at the very heart of which, by its very definition, was separation, partiality, incompletion. But the completion was now in the longing, at least for the moment.

Just as longing can provide for the fulsome memory of the precise melodies of genuine conversation, conversing–the old term was, so aptly, intercourse–and all that is possible between human beings, the experience of those unending echoes initiated in time yet continuing out of it transformed the moment of longing into an experience of the presence of the longed-for. Who is to say that this apprehension of the one who was missed was any less real than the real-life observances of those who are lucky enough to share time and space but who have lost the capacity to experience each other in full? Very few seem to know how to experience someone anew in each new moment rather than taking him or her for granted and thus ceasing to notice the individual as someone unfolding, growing, circling back, despairing, exulting, doubting, becoming, believing, living, and dying. How is “togetherness” under these circumstances anything like union? How is it even close to what can exist between two souls rendered as vulnerable as humanly possible by the pain of desire and the hope for satisfaction in the full knowledge there is only one fragile path to this release? While time and space and other logistical considerations can interfere with the glorious experience of the “skin” of another, as in Thoreau’s quote, the experience of oneness, when the other is really understood to be the other and thus able to be loved and capable of loving in return, can break out of those bounds into a less time-bound realm.

Isn’t it longing–albeit a painful path to this infinite immersion–that makes this so?

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

The Costs of Efficiency

The objects in this room: the green pillow I rest this notebook on, couch and further cushion behind me.  My smartphone sits symmetrically along the edge of the glass coffee table, a clean black half inch over the line.  Sharp.  Next to my data box so many books and notebooks, magazines and periodicals spew their words.  Sentences in combination from Yorker to Lears then back to Jackson again.  If I’m to raise sense up from this rubble I’ll have to stumble just right.  Evenly, to make the granules of dilapidated speech look smooth.  Sifting for the right interpretation—like shuffling cards with less surety that they’ll still deal straight.  Inspiration shifts to machination, then back to sifting again.  Sheets of paper stacked to summon the right muse.

I say I’m carving out a monograph bit by bit.  The guitar to my left sulks in front of an empty heating-pad box to remind me of my progress.  My roommate’s dirty jeans hang glumly over the banister; he said he’s taking them to the cleaners today.  Soon?  Light pours onto his face as he sits fastened to his Kindle at the dining room table.  To his left, bookcase #1 with so many books I can’t remember.  To his right, bookcase #2 with so many books I never read.  Between them an empty chair glows in the evanescent morning sunshine.  The day is now well underway.

This is how my brain works.  But just yesterday I heard of an alternative.

The way she explained it, certain drugs called SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) adjust serotonin levels to absorb cortisol and reduce cognitive symptoms like anxiety and unwanted compulsive thoughts.  It’s like taking a vitamin, she said.  Only this vitamin can really help take the edge off.

The more she spoke the more I believed it might be this simple.  I remembered the slogan from the Sixties, “Better Living Through Chemistry”, and thought about the prospect all day.  That afternoon a friend and I imagined starting prescriptions together as a kind of scientific experiment in self-management.  Clearly our brains weren’t operating at peak performance, so why not adjust the levels of certain naturally occurring chemicals to make ourselves feel more efficient, more productive, and less prone to non-optimal states of being?  So what if we did this by synthetic means.  Maybe the boost was what we needed to jumpstart our dissertations.  Maybe we would never get them done without these drugs!

Pragmatic logic never seemed so justified or exhilarating as we talked passed our initial reluctance, intent on delivering ourselves from the reality of our lives without the benefits of SSRIs.  But that night the charm began to wear off.  I was sitting in a loft listening to a bad poetry reading when the first wave of serious misgivings hit me.  I pictured myself months later, having started the drugs and taken a liking to them.  Inevitably there would come a time when my prescription was running low and I was unable to refill it immediately.  I imagined rationing my pills and calculating the possible effects of denying my brain its dose of artificial solace even for one day.  I could already feel the faint symptoms of relapse brewing.  Returning to myself without the proper admixture of chemical engineering was terrifying.  I would have to start over, maybe go on another drug.  Either way I’d be trapped.

My heart was pounding as another bad poet left the stage to what seemed like uproarious applause.  How could these people possibly think that poem was worth clapping for?  I remained reticent, insisting through my stiff body language that this was the proper aesthetic response to what we’d just heard.  I wondered how I would experience this reading if I were on the drugs, and then it hit me: the decision to tweak my brain chemistry would change everything.  Even on a low dose it would mean a new level of dependency on forces outside my control and a permanently new relationship to my own conscious mind.  Earlier in the day the prospect seemed liberating.  But the dread I felt sitting there envisioning my future on SSRIs reminded me how easy it is to sacrifice agency when the promise of convenient relief presents itself as guaranteed, and mostly cost-free.


The costs are hard to see.  This is the problem of technologies ranging from agriculture, to combustion engines, to smartphones.  In each case we might hope to remain in control by appealing to some notion of conscious/responsible use.  But the dynamics of autonomy and dependence are fundamentally altered when we allow our tools to affect the ways we think and behave, and virtually no tool has no effect.  The often obscured question is whether the effects of a given tool really constitute net benefits, or whether our uses require us to compromise our ideas of what it is to live well.  In which cases should we not accept the transaction?  Is bad poetry worth recognizing even if it doesn’t feel good?

The ideology of efficacy that underwrites technologies from personal computers to SSRIs is certainly difficult to oppose consistently.  I drive a car, use email, shop at the grocery store, etc.  And I can’t imagine life without these conveniences.  But perhaps we gain something more valuable than intellectual consistency when we choose to preserve select realms of our lives from the intoxicating promises and hidden costs of modern technology.

Opting for the ethics of an eccentric hypocrite in this sense probably does not make life any easier.  But depending on who you ask, it may reveal blind spots that are painfully inefficient to realize yet necessary to see.

-Michael Fisher