Capitalism and the Heterogeneous

The following is an adaptation of a verbal presentation given for Justin Murphy and Nina Power’s course ‘The Politics and Philosophy of Georges Bataille’

The greatest harm that strikes men is perhaps the reduction of their existence to the state of a servile organ… There is no cure for the insufficiency that diminishes anyone who refuses to become a whole man, in order to be nothing more than one of the functions of human society. 

  —Georges Bataille, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Science cannot truly know heterogeneous forces— spirituality, sexuality, violence and creative expression—  because they are by definition only loosely quantifiable, immaterial, and largely subjective. They can be described in scientific and chemical terms to a point, but there is a constant mystery to them, which is cause for our fascination and obsession. Communicating and translating these forces into some form of expression is a function of artistic work. 

The utilitarian logic of modernity is antagonistic to these heterogeneous forces because such forces are excessive, irrational and difficult to control. At worst, these impulses are actively suppressed, and at best they’re assimilated into society under often rational terms and leveraged into commodified and necessarily incomplete forms.

Because of this unquantifiability, truly heterogeneous forces are given a position (or non-position) of non-importance by the prevailing logic of rationalism, which in turn narrows the scope of the “prescribed” human experience to one restricted to a largely utilitarian and materialist philosophy.

Still, as these heterogeneous forces are motivating forces, sources of energy and desires, they are nodes around which markets can be developed. This incentivizes capitalists to assimilate such forces into commodified, contained forms.

Thus there are constant appeals to the heterogeneous from markets within the homogeneous: mass sporting events appealing to tribalism and violence, sex/eroticism in advertising and pornography, and the existence of a “spirituality industry.”

The prevailing socioeconomic logic, codified in the legal system, suggests you only engage with heterogeneous elements insofar as they can be rationalized and commodified. For the stability of the social and economic order— the stability of the homogenous society— there are restrictions on what we can and can’t do, and punitive consequences for transgression of these boundaries.

Yet these laws are constantly broken. People are murdered, drugs are consumed, sex is sold, and violence springs up all the time. This is a testament to the constant pressure of the heterogeneous pushing against the rational world of work and utility.

But this prevailing logic of utilitarianism is antagonistic to the truly non-commodifiable heterogeneous, because such forces are excessive and irrational— difficult to control.

Excess threatens stability, and stability is priority number one. Governments, corporations, and their respective bureaucracies are full of redundancies and checks and balances to ensure their own survival. This logic writ large, while beneficial to the institutions who prescribe and enforce a predictable, profitable utilitarianism, makes for a machinic existence.

For this reason, our conception of the heterogeneous is narrowed by the overwhelmingly rational and utilitarian logic that benefits such institutions.

Various methods of incentivization, their prevalence and sheer convenience all reinforce the dominance of these assimilated forms of the heterogeneous. Likewise, the system has its own incentive for such assimilation: the further commodified these forces are, the larger their market, which in turn contributes to systemic stability. The second order effects of diminished emotional and mental wellbeing even introduce new markets for medicalization of resulting “disorders.” 

These are arguably the most powerful desires we have, and as such they hold great potential for exploitation. And to whatever extent they can be effectively incorporated into the system, they will be. And once incorporated in a lesser, controlled form, there becomes a rational justification against its unrestrained “truly” heterogeneous counterpart: “why do X when you can do Z in a controlled, streamlined and perfectly legal environment?”

Though a broad de-emphasis of the subjective, unquantifiable experience is a general result of this logic, there are also a number of more specific tendencies:

  • Religion becomes much more secularized, as many houses of worship focus on a social message (“be kind”) or materialist concerns (“give to the poor”). The rise of non-denominational churches is perhaps the best example of this— a form of worship stripped not only of mysticism but many of the underlying theological and philosophical principles that give it spiritual weight in favor of terms more in line with the prevailing philosophy.
  • Community suffers in the sense that physical space is expensive, as is the maintenance of facilities, while the subjective benefits of public space are unquantifiable. Encroaching privatization of space is the commodification of socialization in your community. 
  • The mass assimilation of women into the workforce can be seen as a generalized triumph of the primacy of utility, “the profane world of work,” over the comparably “sacred” work of parenthood.
  • Parenting is reduced conceptually to providing material needs and letting the school system/internet— paid services— do the rest. Careers are often at odds with involvement in children’s lives, especially in homes with two working parents. And the kicker of course— federal parental leave is just 12 unpaid weeks in the US.
  • Funding for the arts are notoriously at a constant risk in public schools and genuinely dynamic artistic spaces are often squeezed to the margins of society. Like public space, the benefits of such work must always be justified on rational budgetary terms, which, being largely irrational and subjective fields, will always come up wanting. So instead we end up with the processing of art through bureaucratic “safe” institutions. 
  • Encroaching medicalization of idiosyncrasies that are even marginally “inefficient” within the confines of a specific criteria of productivity— material solutions (pills and medication) to subjective problems in order to facilitate assimilation into the world of utility and “usefulness.”
  • The social pressures of careerism, financial moderation, a disdain for “wasting” time and money, prolongation of life (quantity over quality) and the enforced savings of Social Security that demand you live (contribute to the GDP) long enough to retrieve your money.

The dominance of a socioeconomic order preoccupied with material utility narrows the scope of human existence to one with little proximity to heterogeneous impulses. The implications of this , if not actively worked against— a task that becomes increasingly difficult as wages stagnate and more work is required for “mere” survival— leads to a sense of banal and profane utilitarianism, which likely contributes to the general malaise of mental health and resultant/exacerbated social issues that pervade America today.

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