Sunday, June 22, 2008

This capital-flesh oppresses us, but we are stuck within it. We hate it, but we are also compelled to love it

The Body of Capital from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro

Let us say, then, that Capital itself is the monstrous flesh within which we, the multitude, find ourselves compelled to live. When “the specifically capitalist mode of production” has been well enough developed, Marx says,

“capital. . . becomes a very mystical being, since all the productive forces of social labour appear attributable to it, and not to labour as such, as a power springing forth from its own womb” (1993, 966; cited in Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 11).

It is by appropriating all the fruits of production, and attributing all this production to itself, that capital becomes the mystical being that Deleuze and Guattari call the socius, the full Body without Organs. This monstrous flesh is the womb, the belly, and the skin of our society. The body of capital is the site of all our encounters, the space within which all our desires are registered and distributed. It is the “fluid and slippery” surface (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 15) across which money flows as a universal equivalent, enabling all conceivable metamorphoses from one form to another, or one substance to another. And the depths of this flesh also encompass the time that is our horizon. This includes the time of our “lived experience”: clock time, work time, leisure time. But it also includes forms of time that are alien to any subjective experience: the speed-of-light, nearly instantaneous time of electronic networks, the time-scale of what Marx calls the “turnover” of capital, and the future time that is counted and discounted, and made commensurable with the present, in the form of interest rates.

Of course, this monstrous flesh is “really” ours, ultimately ours. The body of capital can only function to the extent that it appropriates to itself, and attributes to its own creativity, what is actually the productive labor of the multitude. Capital’s claim to production “as a power springing forth from its own womb” is therefore a fiction, or an illusion. But it is an “objective” illusion, a necessary fiction. That is to say, this illusory appearance, this fiction, is itself an actual feature of the world we live in. The body of capital is not really the cause of whatever happens; but it really is what Deleuze and Guattari call the “quasi-cause,” or apparent cause. Money really works as a universal equivalent, to the extent that everyone accepts it as such; and capital really does succeed in becoming the motor of all production, insofar as it enforces its property claims by means of a whole arsenal of weapons: laws, institutions, customs, beliefs, disciplinary procedures, threats of violence, and other forms of coercion and persuasion.

A “mystical being” whose embodiment is secured by procedures that, for their part, are all too materially effective, Capital can only be represented and experienced “in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity” (Derrida 1980, 293). For it cannot be grasped within everyday experience. The socius, or “full body of capital,” is entirely composed of material processes in the phenomenal world; and yet, as the limit and the summation of all these processes, it has a quasi-transcendental status. That is to say, the body of capital is not a particular phenomenon that we encounter at a specific time and place; it is rather the already-given presupposition of whatever phenomenon we do encounter. We cannot experience this capital-body directly, and for itself; yet all our experiences are lodged within it, and can properly be regarded as its effects. The monstrous flesh of capital is the horizon, or the matrix, or the underlying location and container of our experience, as producers or as consumers. In this sense, it can indeed be regarded as something like what Kant would call a transcendental condition of experience. Or better – since it is a process, rather than a structure or an entity – it can be understood as what Deleuze and Guattari call a basic “synthesis” that generates and organizes our experience.

The “full body” or flesh of capital, therefore, is at the same time palpable and intangible – however much of an oxymoron this formulation might seem to be. We are always in contact with this ghastly flesh, but we are never actually able to “grasp” it. We do not have enough distance to apprehend it accurately; we can no more “see” it than a flea can see the dog within whose fur it is embedded. In our pragmatic, day-to-day experience, this capital-body is an alien enormity, that we cannot ever tear ourselves free from, but that we also do not own or control in any way. The experience of the capital-body is common to everyone; but this is only a suffering in common, rather than the production in common that Hardt and Negri would like it to be. Either as producers or consumers, our subjective activity is relentlessly atomized and scattered; the only unity is that of the socius itself. We scurry about in the folds and convolutions of this capital-flesh like lice or bedbugs. At best, we may manage to divert some of the flows of the body of capital, pervert them, and detourn them. We may even be able to reprogram the body’s “axiomatics” or “genetic code” here and there, just a little bit, the way that viruses do. But that is all.

This capital-flesh oppresses us, but we are stuck within it. We hate it, but we are also compelled to love it, because we depend upon it for sustenance, and we cannot live without it. Understood according to the order of first causes, sub specie aeternitatis as Spinoza would have it, capital is parasitic upon the labor of the multitude. But existentially and experientially, the situation is rather the reverse: we are parasites on the monstrous body of Capital.

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