Saturday, 5 October 2019

What did Max Weber mean by the ‘spirit’ of capitalism?

The BASF factory at Ludwigshafen, Germany
Pictured on a postcard in 1881
Courtesy Wikipedia

By Peter Ghosh

Max Weber’s famous text The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) is surely one of the most misunderstood of all the canonical works regularly taught, mangled and revered in universities across the globe. This is not to say that teachers and students are stupid, but that this is an exceptionally compact text that ranges across a very broad subject area, written by an out-and-out intellectual at the top of his game. He would have been dumb­founded to find that it was being used as an elementary introduction to sociology for undergraduate students, or even schoolchildren.

We use the word ‘capitalism’ today as if its meaning were self-evident, or else as if it came from Marx, but this casualness must be set aside. ‘Capitalism’ was Weber’s own word and he defined it as he saw fit. Its most general meaning was quite simply modernity itself: capitalism was ‘the most fateful power in our modern life’. More specifically, it controlled and generated ‘modern Kultur’, the code of values by which people lived in the 20th-century West, and now live, we may add, in much of the 21st-century globe. So the ‘spirit’ of capitalism is also an ‘ethic’, though no doubt the title would have sounded a bit flat if it had been called The Protestant Ethic and the Ethic of Capitalism.

This modern ‘ethic’ or code of values was unlike any other that had gone before. Weber supposed that all previous ethics – that is, socially accepted codes of behaviour rather than the more abstract propositions made by theologians and philosophers – were religious. Religions supplied clear messages about how to behave in society in straightforward human terms, messages that were taken to be moral absolutes binding on all people. In the West this meant Christianity, and its most important social and ethical prescription came out of the Bible: ‘Love thy neighbour.’ Weber was not against love, but his idea of love was a private one – a realm of intimacy and sexuality. As a guide to social behaviour in public places ‘love thy neighbour’ was obviously nonsense, and this was a principal reason why the claims of churches to speak to modern society in authentically religious terms were marginal. He would not have been surprised at the long innings enjoyed by the slogan ‘God is love’ in the 20th-century West – its career was already launched in his own day – nor that its social consequences should have been so limited.

The ethic or code that dominated public life in the modern world was very different. Above all it was impersonal rather than personal: by Weber’s day, agreement on what was right and wrong for the individual was breaking down. The truths of religion – the basis of ethics – were now contested, and other time-honoured norms – such as those pertaining to sexuality, marriage and beauty – were also breaking down. (Here is a blast from the past: who today would think to uphold a binding idea of beauty?) Values were increasingly the property of the individual, not society. So instead of humanly warm contact, based on a shared, intuitively obvious understanding of right and wrong, public behaviour was cool, reserved, hard and sober, governed by strict personal self-control. Correct behaviour lay in the observance of correct procedures. Most obviously, it obeyed the letter of the law (for who could say what its spirit was?) and it was rational. It was logical, consistent, and coherent; or else it obeyed unquestioned modern realities such as the power of numbers, market forces and technology.

There was another kind of disintegration besides that of traditional ethics. The proliferation of knowledge and reflection on knowledge had made it impossible for any one person to know and survey it all. In a world which could not be grasped as a whole, and where there were no universally shared values, most people clung to the particular niche to which they were most committed: their job or profession. They treated their work as a post-religious calling, ‘an absolute end in itself’, and if the modern ‘ethic’ or ‘spirit’ had an ultimate found­ation, this was it. One of the most widespread clichés about Weber’s thought is to say that he preached a work ethic. This is a mistake. He personally saw no particular virtue in sweat – he thought his best ideas came to him when relaxing on a sofa with a cigar – and had he known he would be misunder­stood in this way, he would have pointed out that a capacity for hard work was something that did not dist­inguish the modern West from previous soc­ieties and their value systems. However, the idea that people were being ever more defined by the blinkered focus of their employment was one he regarded as profoundly modern and characteristic.

The blinkered pro­fessional ethic was common to entrepreneurs and an increasingly high-wage, skilled labour force, and it was this combination that produced a situation where the ‘highest good’ was the making of money and ever more money, without any limit. This is what is most readily recognisable as the ‘spirit’ of capitalism, but it should be stressed that it was not a simple ethic of greed which, as Weber recognised, was age-old and eternal. In fact there are two sets of ideas here, though they overlap. There is one about potentially universal rational pro­cedures – specialisation, logic, and formally consistent behaviour – and another that is closer to the modern economy, of which the central part is the professional ethic. The modern situation was the product of narrow-minded adhesion to one’s particular function under a set of conditions where the attempt to understand modernity as a whole had been abandoned by most people. As a result they were not in control of their own destiny, but were governed by the set of rational and impersonal pro­cedures which he likened to an iron cage, or ‘steel housing’. Given its rational and impersonal foundations, the housing fell far short of any human ideal of warmth, spontaneity or breadth of outlook; yet rationality, technology and legality also produced material goods for mass consumption in unprecedented amounts. For this reason, though they could always do so if they chose to, people were unlikely to leave the housing ‘until the last hundredweight of fossil fuel is burned up’.

It is an extremely powerful analysis, which tells us a great deal about the 20th-century West and a set of Western ideas and priorities that the rest of the world has been increasingly happy to take up since 1945. It derives its power not simply from what it says, but because Weber sought to place under­standing before judgment, and to see the world as a whole. If we wish to go beyond him, we must do the same.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Revisiting Schizocartography


If you are interested in schizocartography, or psychogeography in general, I will be presenting at the 4WCOP Psychogeography Conference on 6 September 2019 at 12.30 at Heritage Quay at the University of Huddersfield.

Schizocartography will be revisited, 10 years on, and you can see what will be covered in my talk below. Events are free, but you need to book a place.

Hope to see you there!


Saturday, 31 August 2019

The Trafford Centre Meets Concrete Island


Fenella Brandenburg and David Bolinger will be together again at the Fourth World Congress of Psychogeography on Friday 6th September at 12.30. The haven't presented together since 2017, when Fenella stormed off the stage in a strop. Here's hoping that their 2019 conference talk goes a bit better. This will be a performance-style talk at the cusp of J G Ballard's fictional Concrete Island and the non-fictional place, the Trafford Centre in Manchester.

I am hoping that Brandenburg will contribute a blog post after the conference, but last time I asked her she said “Are you kidding! There is no way I want to be associated with that load of bimbling idiots”.

All welcome! It is free, but please book your place.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Car Park Life by Gareth E. Rees


Gareth E. Rees’s “unexplored urban wilderness” of car park jouissance brings all of your favourite urban phenomenon together under one volume. From faux architecture to surveillance zones, live geese to dead humans, and psychogeography to dogging, it’s all here. The back cover says:
Gareth E. Rees believes that the retail car park has as much mystery, magic and terror as any mountain, meadow or wood. He’s out to prove it by walking the car parks of Britain, journeying across the country from Plymouth to Edinburgh, much to the horror of his family, friends – and, most of all – himself.
The chapters are themed, for example - The Access Road, Animal Instincts, and Doughnuts – making for a much more interesting read than just a straightforward car park by car park analysis. There are also images, taken from the research, and a neat little leitmotif of a shopping trolley, which pops up now and then.

Rees’s lively, articulate - at times sensitive and personal - non-fiction draws on his observations of the spaces to hand, includes background research, social history and his adeptness in crafting a good story. It is for psychogeographers and non-psychogeographers alike.

Car Park Life (2019) is published by Influx Press and you can find out more about it here.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Space, Gaze and Power: A Foucauldian Methodology for Fashion Advertising Analysis


Figure 1: Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velázquez © Museo Nacional del Prado

Link to free copy

Below is the abstract from my recently published articles in Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture and underneath that, if you click on the link, you can download a free copy (please note, there are only 50 free copies, so at some point they may run out).

Abstract:
This article examines fashion imagery in regard to representations of power as they pertain to the mise en scene of fashion advertising. By employing a specific form of image critique employed by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things [1966], a new methodology for analyzing fashion advertising is proposed and formulated. This form of critique enables elements such as the gaze, light and space to be framed into lines of sight. These lines can be examined in regard to the viewing subject, the staging of the advert, and structures of power. In his critique of the painting by Diego Velázquez Las Meninas (1656), Foucault states: “No gaze is stable, or rather, in the neutral furrow of the gaze piercing at a right angle through the canvas, subject and object, the spectator and the model, reverse their roles to infinity”. This sentence presents us with the phenomenological form of Foucault’s critique, containing a number of the themes that thread their way through his analysis of this baroque painting of the characters surrounding the child princess. These themes enable us to use this methodology to critique fashion imagery and this article offers up a new approach to visual analysis, one that has not been considered before and that can now be added to the fashion theory toolbox.

Keywords: fashion advertising, Michel Foucault, hermeneutics, pedagogy, phenomenology

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Psychogeography, Psychoanalysis and Progressive Rock - Public Lecture Manchester 13 June 5.30



I will be presenting a short research-based performance style lecture on June 13 at Manchester Metropolitan University entitled:

The Rael/Real of Psychogeography: Urban walking as a method of ameliorating castration anxiety in Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

It is for anyone interested in psychogeography, psychoanalysis, popular culture, cultural theory and/or progressive rock.

The lecture will be about 20 minutes long and there will be time for questions afterwards. All welcome.

ABSTRACT:
Rael is not real, but he is a popular culture representation of a real individual who is a stranger in a new city. As a recent immigrant to New York, Rael has to negotiate the alien space that has suddenly become his home. Part hero, part graffiti artist, part urban explorer, we witness our protagonist traversing the physical landscape of the city and that of his own psyche.

This paper explores the Lacanian concepts of castration anxiety, lack, the Other, and the real, in the context of the album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis, 1974). It examines the anxiety displayed in the character of the story and his attempts to work through this by using the landscape of the city as a vehicle for his own self-therapy.

By analysing Rael’s behaviour in the story, Richardson demonstrates that by taking a psychogeographic approach to the physical space of the city, and the abstract space of his own mind, Rael manages to work his way through the aesthetics of living in New York, as a foreigner, by facing his own troubled past.

TIME: June 13th 5.30-6.30
VENUE: Geoffrey Manton Building (Room GM LT4), Manchester Campus, Manchester Metropolitan University

Please see link to map here:

I look forward to seeing you there.

Tina Richardson

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Monopoly Was Invented to Demonstrate the Evils of Capitalism


By Kate Raworth

‘Buy land – they aren’t making it any more,’ quipped Mark Twain. It’s a maxim that would certainly serve you well in a game of Monopoly, the bestselling board game that has taught generations of children to buy up property, stack it with hotels, and charge fellow players sky-high rents for the privilege of accidentally landing there.

The game’s little-known inventor, Elizabeth Magie, would no doubt have made herself go directly to jail if she’d lived to know just how influential today’s twisted version of her game has turned out to be. Why? Because it encourages its players to celebrate exactly the opposite values to those she intended to champion.

Born in 1866, Magie was an outspoken rebel against the norms and politics of her times. She was unmarried into her 40s, independent and proud of it, and made her point with a publicity stunt. Taking out a newspaper advertisement, she offered herself as a ‘young woman American slave’ for sale to the highest bidder. Her aim, she told shocked readers, was to highlight the subordinate position of women in society. ‘We are not machines,’ she said. ‘Girls have minds, desires, hopes and ambition.’

In addition to confronting gender politics, Magie decided to take on the capitalist system of property ownership – this time not through a publicity stunt but in the form of a board game. The inspiration began with a book that her father, the anti-monopolist politician James Magie, had handed to her. In the pages of Henry George’s classic, Progress and Poverty (1879), she encountered his conviction that ‘the equal right of all men to use the land is as clear as their equal right to breathe the air – it is a right proclaimed by the fact of their existence’.

Travelling around America in the 1870s, George had witnessed persistent destitution amid growing wealth, and he believed it was largely the inequity of land ownership that bound these two forces – poverty and progress – together. So instead of following Twain by encouraging his fellow citizens to buy land, he called on the state to tax it. On what grounds? Because much of land’s value comes not from what is built on the plot but from nature’s gift of water or minerals that might lie beneath its surface, or from the communally created value of its surroundings: nearby roads and railways; a thriving economy, a safe neighbourhood; good local schools and hospitals. And he argued that the tax receipts should be invested on behalf of all.

Determined to prove the merit of George’s proposal, Magie invented and in 1904 patented what she called the Landlord’s Game. Laid out on the board as a circuit (which was a novelty at the time), it was populated with streets and landmarks for sale. The key innovation of her game, however, lay in the two sets of rules that she wrote for playing it.

Under the ‘Prosperity’ set of rules, every player gained each time someone acquired a new property (designed to reflect George’s policy of taxing the value of land), and the game was won (by all!) when the player who had started out with the least money had doubled it. Under the ‘Monopolist’ set of rules, in contrast, players got ahead by acquiring properties and collecting rent from all those who were unfortunate enough to land there – and whoever managed to bankrupt the rest emerged as the sole winner (sound a little familiar?).

The purpose of the dual sets of rules, said Magie, was for players to experience a ‘practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences’ and hence to understand how different approaches to property ownership can lead to vastly different social outcomes. ‘It might well have been called “The Game of Life”,’ remarked Magie, ‘as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seems to have, ie, the accumulation of wealth.’

The game was soon a hit among Left-wing intellectuals, on college campuses including the Wharton School, Harvard and Columbia, and also among Quaker communities, some of which modified the rules and redrew the board with street names from Atlantic City. Among the players of this Quaker adaptation was an unemployed man called Charles Darrow, who later sold such a modified version to the games company Parker Brothers as his own.

Once the game’s true origins came to light, Parker Brothers bought up Magie’s patent, but then re-launched the board game simply as Monopoly, and provided the eager public with just one set of rules: those that celebrate the triumph of one over all. Worse, they marketed it along with the claim that the game’s inventor was Darrow, who they said had dreamed it up in the 1930s, sold it to Parker Brothers, and become a millionaire. It was a rags-to-riches fabrication that ironically exemplified Monopoly’s implicit values: chase wealth and crush your opponents if you want to come out on top.

So next time someone invites you to join a game of Monopoly, here’s a thought. As you set out piles for the Chance and Community Chest cards, establish a third pile for Land-Value Tax, to which every property owner must contribute each time they charge rent to a fellow player. How high should that land tax be? And how should the resulting tax receipts be distributed? Such questions will no doubt lead to fiery debate around the Monopoly board – but then that is exactly what Magie had always hoped for.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Aeon counter – do not remove

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Where the Garment Gapes: The Slit Aesthetic and Jouissance in Fashion


This semester, Philippa Jackson - a guest lecturer for my undergraduate unit, Fashion and Society - introduced me to the term “slit aesthetic” for the first time. The term was coined by Maureen Turim in her article ‘Fashion Shapes: Film, the Fashion Industry, and the Image of Women’. Turim describes the slit aesthetic as being a gap in women’s clothing that reveals the wearer’s skin, in particular the “neck, shoulders, back and breasts” (1983). While Turim’s discussion focuses on the representation of female actors in a specific moment in Hollywood film history, I would like to take up her brief discussion on desire and how this relates to the work of Roland Barthes in his own analysis of desire, wherein he uses a similar example.

In The Pleasure of the Text [1973] Barthes alludes to the arousing nature of what is not visible when he says: “Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes?” (1975, p.9). He provides an example of the gap between the end of a woman’s sleeve and the top of her glove, revealing a tiny glimpse of her wrist.


He describes this process as “the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance” and explains how an opening reveals something that attracts the subject by creating a kind of window (ibid.). This offers a taste and yet conceals so much more. An obvious contemporary example would be the flash of a woman’s leg appearing through the split of a dress. What is conceals alludes to a promise. This may not be ‘a promise’ in the vernacular sense of the word, but it is not totally dissimilar: what is concealed, though not visible, is suggested and it is the desire that this instils in the subject, and the subsequent response, that we can describe as jouissance.

In terms of the slit aesthetic, Turim sees the desire as being oriented in the male gaze, but she also explains that this gaze becomes fetishistic in that in these instances the film’s editing appears as a “cutting back and forth between the gazing male and the female body he looks at” (1983). This fetishisation then turns this slice of flesh into an object which, hence, stands in for the whole female. However, Barthes’ interpretation is different. Barthes explains how it is the “seam” which is erotic (1975, pp.7-8). It is the boundary, the join, the incision that disrupts normal textual flow and opens up a domain of polysemy. But this space is required to remain in abeyance in order for bliss – jouissance – to remain. In other words, and as it would be for Turim’s male audience, they will never ‘have’ the female actress.

In her article 'Beyond the Jouissance Principle' Jane Gallop says: “If jouissance is celebrated as something that unsettles assumptions, it becomes ineffective when it itself settles into an assumption.” (1984, p.112). The condition of the space of bliss relies on the lack of conjecture. Assumptions, knowledge of the outcome, and emotional investment in the conclusion avert jouissance. Bliss continues until the subject 'knows'.

In A Lover’s Discourse [1977] Barthes explains how the lover’s absence can be manipulated. He describes it as an “active practice” (1979, p.16) in which the not knowing of the whereabouts of one’s lover creates doubts and desires: “This staging of language postpones the other’s death” (ibid.). Barthes explains that “to manipulate absence is to extend this interval, to delay as long as possible the moment when the other might topple sharply from absence into death.” (ibid.).

While, Turim’s example sees the wearer of the slit aesthetic as representing the “phallic woman” (1983), Barthes sees that gap as jouissance and plays with the space in which the lover has not yet returned by extending the interval: when will the lover return or might it be that the lover never returns…


References
Barthes, Roland. 1975. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. by Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang).
Barthes, Roland. 1979. A Lover’s Discourse. Trans. by Richard Howard (London: Jonathan Cape).
Gallop, Jane, ‘Beyond the Jouissance Principle’, Representations, 7, (Summer, 1984) pp. 110-115.
Turim, Maureen, ‘Fashion Shapes: Film, the Fashion Industry, and the Image of Women’, Socialist Review, 71 (13), (Radical Society Ltd, 1983) pp. 78-96.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Non-Representational Theory - Part 2: 'Challenging Ossified Systems of Power'


Edited by Candice P. Boyd and Christian Edwardes, Non-Representational Theory and the Creative Arts has just been published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2019.

Below is an abstract for my own chapter in the book - a photo essay - 'Psy(co)motion: Anti-Production and Détournement in Affective Musical Cartographies'. And below that is a list of contents for the book:
This chapter discusses the musical compilation series psy(co)motion in the context of a Guattarian analysis. It introduces the set of psychogeographically-oriented CDs within the mix-tape/CD phenomenon while situating it as a form that challenges ossified systems of power. The chapter goes on to discuss whether psy(co)motion manages to successfully recuperate itself through the molecular creation of the object, and via its virtual and physical dissemination.

CONTENTS

Foreword
Non-Representational Dreams
Nigel Thrift
1          Creative Practice and the Non-Representational
Candice P. Boyd and Christian Edwardes
Part 1  Situated Practices in Art, Craft and Design
2          Geo/graphic design
Alison Barnes 
3          Geologic Landscape: A Performance and a Wrecked Mobile Phone
Veronica Vickery 
4          Micro-Geographies of the Studio
Christian Edwardes 
5          Making, knowing and being made: hand-stitching beyond representation  
Emma Shercliff 
6          Feeling Queer Art in Public:  The Gay Liberation Monument
Martin Zebracki
Part 2  Artistic Engagements with Geography
7          Affecting Objects:  Enacting Gesture Within a Performative Research Enquiry
Sarah Bennett
8          Circadian Rhythms, Sunsets, and the Representational Thresholds of Time-Lapse Photography
Kaya Barry
9          ‘Call That Art?  I Call It Bad Eyesight’:  Seeing or Not Seeing in the Context of Responsive Art Practice
Annie Lovejoy
10        Forward, Back, Together – and the Materialities of Taking Part
Simon Pope
11        Where Does ‘Your’ Space End and the Next Begin?  Non-Representational Geographies of Improvised Performance
Candice P. Boyd with Yan Yang, Juana Beltrán, Clinton Green, Jordan White, Carmen Chan Schoenborn, Elnaz Sheshgelani, Chun-liang Liu, Michael McNab, and Ren Walters 
Part 3  Geographers Exploring Artistic Practice
12        Making Theatre That Matters:  Troubling Subtext, Motive, and Intuition
Ruth Raynor
13        Creativity, Labour, and Captain Cook’s Cottage:  From Great Ayton to Fitzroy Gardens
Tim Edensor 
14        Material Conditions in the Post-Human City
Andrew Gorman-Murray 
15        Attuning to the Geothermal-Urban:  Kinetics, Cinematics, and Digital Elementality
Matthew Shepherd 
16        Thresholds of Representation:  Physical Disability in Dance and Perceptions of the Moving Body
Michelle Duffy, Paul Atkinson, and Nicola Wood
Interlude
Supervising
Harriet Hawkins and Rachel Hughes
Part 4  Sound, Music, and Creative Mobilities
17        Audio Recording as Performance
Michael Gallagher
18        Psy(co)motion: Anti-Production and Détournement in Affective Musical Cartographies
Tina Richardson 
19        Walk with Me
Jeffrey Hannam and Lawrence Harvey 
20        Imaginal Travel:  An Expedition in Fine Art Practice in Search of the Loneliest Palm
Gayle Chong Kwan 
21        Fragments (formerly Tales from the Asylum)
Thomas Jellis and Joe Gerlach
22        On Edge:  Writing Non-Representational Journeys
David Bissell
Afterword
Sensing the World Anew
Barbara Bolt

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

'One of These Days' from Meddle (Pink Floyd 1971)


I was watching a rerun of one of those prog rock documentaries on either Sky or BBC 4 the other day and found out that the track 'One of These Days' from Pink Floyd's Meddle (1971) was accompanied by a film made by Ian Emes who, at the time of making, was a student at The Birmingham College of Art. You can see the video here. It's really very good.

Emes later worked with Mike Oldfield and Duran Duran, and did many collaborations with Pink Floyd over the years. A lot of his work was featured at the V and A Pink Floyd retrospective in 2017: Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains Exhibition. Below is a photo I took at that exhibition:


Note: I am hoping that I will have a chapter included in an upcoming book about Pink Floyd, although it will be about the album and the film The Wall. You can read more about it here.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

The Real/Rael of Psychogeography


The Real/Rael of Psychogeography:
Urban Walking as a Method of Ameliorating Castration Anxiety in Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

I will be presenting a paper at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting in Washington DC w.b. 1st April 2019 in the Lacanian Landscapes session. Here is the abstract:

Rael is not real, but he is a popular culture representation of a real individual who is a stranger in a new city. As a recent immigrant to New York, Rael has to negotiate the alien space that has suddenly become his home. Part hero, part graffiti artist, part urban explorer, we witness our protagonist traversing the physical landscape of the city and that of his own psyche.

This paper explores the Lacanian concepts of castration anxiety, lack, the Other, and the real, in the context of the album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis, 1974). It examines the anxiety displayed in the character of the story and his attempts to work through this by using the landscape of the city as a vehicle for his own self-therapy.

By analysing Rael’s behaviour in the story, Richardson demonstrates that by taking a psychogeographic approach to the physical space of the city, and the abstract space of his own mind, Rael manages to work his way through the aesthetics of living in New York, as a foreigner, by facing his own troubled past.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Urinary Segregation: Jacques Lacan on Sexual Difference


“It is Freud’s discovery that gives the signifier/signified opposition its full scope: for the signifier plays an active role in determining the effects by which the signifiable appears to succumb to its mark, becoming, through that passion, the signified.” (Lacan 2002, p.274). 
This blog introduces Lacan’s theory of sexual difference by using his ‘anecdotal’ example of urinary segregation. It is available here to use as a study tool.


Firstly we have Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic sign (Saussure 1966, pp.66-67) (above), which forms the basis of Lacan’s model. With his model, Saussure assigns the concept (the top level) to the signified, and the sound pattern (the lower level) to the signifier, explaining that their association is arbitrary (Saussure 1966, p.67).


The above image is Lacan’s topography of the unconscious (Lacan 2002, p.141). Note the similarity with Saussure’s, to whom Lacan attributes it. However, Lacan demonstrates the importance of the signifier by reversing the hierarchy here in his own algorithm. The signifier, the unconscious, cannot be a true representation of the signified, because no direct exchange exists.


This is Lacan’s illustration of “urinary segregation” (Lacan 2002, p.143). Lacan’s anecdotal graphic demonstrates how “the signifier in fact enters the signified” (2002, p.142). His aim here is to show how the signifier becomes materialised in reality. His example is based on the traditional “faulty illustration” (ibid.) but here he uses associated binary terms. Lacan explains that from the train windows the children in his story experience a different physical perspective due to their seating arrangement: the boy believes they have arrived at “ladies” and the girl at “gentlemen” (2002, p.143). So, what in fact is happening for Lacan is that the railway lines represent and actualise the bar in Saussure’s model, becoming “a barrier resisting signification” (Lacan 2002, p141). Thus, the real signifier here (the toilet doors) creates for the children an ideological binarity positioning them in opposing domains (Lacan 2002, p.144).

Related Links:
On Knowledge and Phalluses

Bibliography:
Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1966. Course in General Linguistics, ed. by Charles Bally, Albert Sechehaye and Albert Riedlinger, trans. by Wade Baskin (New York, Toronto and London: McGraw-Hill).
Lacan, Jacques. 2002. Ecrits: A Selection, trans. by Bruce Fink (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co.).

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Why Amartya Sen Remains the Century’s Great Critic of Capitalism

By Tim Rogan

Critiques of capitalism come in two varieties. First, there is the moral or spiritual critique. This critique rejects Homo economicus as the organising heuristic of human affairs. Human beings, it says, need more than material things to prosper. Calculating power is only a small part of what makes us who we are. Moral and spiritual relationships are first-order concerns. Material fixes such as a universal basic income will make no difference to societies in which the basic relationships are felt to be unjust.

Then there is the material critique of capitalism. The economists who lead discussions of inequality now are its leading exponents. Homo economicus is the right starting point for social thought. We are poor calculators and single-minded, failing to see our advantage in the rational distribution of prosperity across societies. Hence inequality, the wages of ungoverned growth. But we are calculators all the same, and what we need above all is material plenty, thus the focus on the redress of material inequality. From good material outcomes, the rest follows.

The first kind of argument for capitalism’s reform seems recessive now. The material critique predominates. Ideas emerge in numbers and figures. Talk of non-material values in political economy is muted. The Christians and Marxists who once made the moral critique of capitalism their own are marginal. Utilitarianism grows ubiquitous and compulsory.

But then there is Amartya Sen.

Every major work on material inequality in the 21st century owes a debt to Sen. But his own writings treat material inequality as though the moral frameworks and social relationships that mediate economic exchanges matter. Famine is the nadir of material deprivation. But it seldom occurs – Sen argues – for lack of food. To understand why a people goes hungry, look not for catastrophic crop failure; look rather for malfunctions of the moral economy that moderates competing demands upon a scarce commodity. Material inequality of the most egregious kind is the problem here. But piecemeal modifications to the machinery of production and distribution will not solve it. The relationships between different members of the economy must be put right. Only then will there be enough to go around.

In Sen’s work, the two critiques of capitalism cooperate. We move from moral concerns to material outcomes and back again with no sense of a threshold separating the two. Sen disentangles moral and material issues without favouring one or the other, keeping both in focus. The separation between the two critiques of capitalism is real, but transcending the divide is possible, and not only at some esoteric remove. Sen’s is a singular mind, but his work has a widespread following, not least in provinces of modern life where the predominance of utilitarian thinking is most pronounced. In economics curricula and in the schools of public policy, in internationalist secretariats and in humanitarian NGOs, there too Sen has created a niche for thinking that crosses boundaries otherwise rigidly observed.

This was no feat of lonely genius or freakish charisma. It was an effort of ordinary human innovation, putting old ideas together in new combinations to tackle emerging problems. Formal training in economics, mathematics and moral philosophy supplied the tools Sen has used to construct his critical system. But the influence of Rabindranath Tagore sensitised Sen to the subtle interrelation between our moral lives and our material needs. And a profound historical sensibility has enabled him to see the sharp separation of the two domains as transient.

Tagore’s school at Santiniketan in West Bengal was Sen’s birthplace. Tagore’s pedagogy emphasised articulate relations between a person’s material and spiritual existences. Both were essential – biological necessity, self-creating freedom – but modern societies tended to confuse the proper relation between them. In Santiniketan, pupils played at unstructured exploration of the natural world between brief forays into the arts, learning to understand their sensory and spiritual selves as at once distinct and unified.

Sen left Santiniketan in the late 1940s as a young adult to study economics in Calcutta and Cambridge. The major contemporary controversy in economics was the theory of welfare, and debate was affected by Cold War contention between market- and state-based models of economic order. Sen’s sympathies were social democratic but anti-authoritarian. Welfare economists of the 1930s and 1940s sought to split the difference, insisting that states could legitimate programmes of redistribution by appeal to rigid utilitarian principles: a pound in a poor man’s pocket adds more to overall utility than the same pound in the rich man’s pile. Here was the material critique of capitalism in its infancy, and here is Sen’s response: maximising utility is not everyone’s abiding concern – saying so and then making policy accordingly is a form of tyranny – and in any case using government to move money around in pursuit of some notional optimum is a flawed means to that end.

Economic rationality harbours a hidden politics whose implementation damaged the moral economies that groups of people built up to govern their own lives, frustrating the achievement of its stated aims. In commercial societies, individuals pursue economic ends within agreed social and moral frameworks. The social and moral frameworks are neither superfluous nor inhibiting. They are the coefficients of durable growth.

Moral economies are not neutral, given, unvarying or universal. They are contested and evolving. Each person is more than a cold calculator of rational utility. Societies aren’t just engines of prosperity. The challenge is to make non-economic norms affecting market conduct legible, to bring the moral economies amid which market economies and administrative states function into focus. Thinking that bifurcates moral on the one hand and material on the other is inhibiting. But such thinking is not natural and inevitable, it is mutable and contingent – learned and apt to be unlearned.
Sen was not alone in seeing this. The American economist Kenneth Arrow was his most important interlocutor, connecting Sen in turn with the tradition of moral critique associated with R H Tawney and Karl Polanyi. Each was determined to re-integrate economics into frameworks of moral relationship and social choice. But Sen saw more clearly than any of them how this could be achieved. He realised that at earlier moments in modern political economy this separation of our moral lives from our material concerns had been inconceivable. Utilitarianism had blown in like a weather front around 1800, trailing extremes of moral fervour and calculating zeal in its wake. Sen sensed this climate of opinion changing, and set about cultivating ameliorative ideas and approaches eradicated by its onset once again.

There have been two critiques of capitalism, but there should be only one. Amartya Sen is the new century’s first great critic of capitalism because he has made that clear.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.