Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Human, machine, system. Right now I have three neighbouring browser tabs open, each containing a fascinating article. Together, they seem to tell a dispiriting story about the relationship between capitalism and the human body.

The first is 'You're A Woman, I'm A Machine', Haley Mlotek's essay on Donna Haraway's cyborg theories and women's self-help narratives. I thought it was just extraordinary that such an essay might be found on BuzzFeed, of all places – snobbish media narratives hold it is only for moronic listicles and quizzes. (Look, I wrote an essay of my own about the quizzes.) But it seems that it's precisely the hectic pageviews BuzzFeed attracts that enable it to feed investigative and intellectual enquiry. It's just hired one of my favourite pop-academic writers, Anne Helen Petersen, away from academia.

"Nobody ever asks if a cyborg can have it all. Nobody ever tells a cyborg to lean in," writes Mlotek. "For a cyborg, identity is a fusion of organic and/or human elements with machinery; a cyborg cannot be one thing, stretched in too many directions, because a cyborg has always been a multiple within itself."

I've never studied Haraway and have never really got my head around what she means by 'cyborg'. I get the idea that she doesn't take the obvious definition of organic bodies incorporating machine parts, but instead more an idea of how our human capabilities are augmented by technology, and how even our organic selves are being made machinic through the robotic way we subject them to systems to work, in Daft Punk's words, "harder, better, faster, stronger" as "more than ever, hour after hour, work is never over." As Mlotek notes, the word 'robot' means 'slave'. 

"Years of slavish devotion to my own labor and the labor I sell to companies and individuals at a premium rate has already made me into a kind of machine; I am an impatient, unsatisfied person, constantly looking at the easily quantifiable achievements of my labor and forcing myself to do the same, but better and faster, next time."

This paragraph really struck a chord with me regarding my malaise. Mlotek wonders if the very category of 'woman' is cyborg: "a hybrid body made up of organic material and the implanted subconsciousness of those voices telling women how to behave, how to be better."

"Maybe, instead, we should think of our consciousness as a circuit board that we are in control of. Instead of being something that must be formed, we can hold ourselves as individual units open to being rewired, to adapting to new advances, and not simply mechanisms who are in need of constant repair from some sort of patriarchal tool box."

The second article is an essay by Jeff Sparrow about Soylent, that gross chemical slurry that some Silicon Valley bro with poor social skills dreamed up so he wouldn't have to waste his precious brain time on a task as onerous and expensive as eating.

Now, as a terrible cook and a fierce loather of foodist culture in all its repulsive decadence, you would think I am into Soylent. I am not, because while I dislike the palaver of cooking and banging on about food, I really enjoy eating. Pretty much the only pleasure in my life is reading novels in cafes and restaurants.

Because Soylent is designed to remove the rituals and the sensory experiences that constitute eating 'meals', it's not a genuine meal replacement. As Sparrow points out, it's "a product designed not to feed people but to feed people under capitalist conditions".

Sparrow points to Marx's description of 19th-century workers, trapped in rigid regimes of productivity, who could only exercise their humanity through the necessary actions of life: dressing, eating, drinking and procreating. This is a familiar argument to me from my days studying Marxist subcultural theory, which argued that 1970s youth subcultures were so spectacular and homologous because society offered young people no other exercise of their human agency.

But as Sparrow argues, our entire lives have become colonised by work. 'Life hacking' – a diffuse field of technologies and logistical strategies ostensibly intended to buy the user free time to pursue his or her own interests – instead structures all time, turning leisure into a resource from which to mine more labour productivity.

Just as life hacking represents "the internalisation of management practices by the managed themselves", Sparrow writes, "Soylent’s deliberately unflavoured because it’s a utility rather than a snack, a system rather than a supplement."

Convincing people to pay money for this horrible slurry, with the intention of 'becoming more productive' – and naming it after a dystopian system! – is the ultimate triumph of the anti-human neoliberal project. "Soylent presumes and promotes an order in which working people possess no agency whatsoever but simply embody a labour power to be grudgingly replenished with spoonfuls of sludge."

Perversely, Sparrow adds, Soylent making has become a hobby. "This, then, is the strange paradox of life hacking: simply, in the era of neoliberalism, we can feel most human by eroding our humanity." Soylent Green may have been people, but Soylent is not.

Yet Sparrow ends on a utopian note. "What would happen, we might ask, if the creativity now expressed in private activities like cooking found a public and social expression? What possibilities would open up if, instead of replacing meals, we replaced social structures; if, instead of hacking our lives, we hacked our society?"

It's ironic indeed that I have now been writing this blog post, ostensibly in my 'leisure' time, for about four hours, and it is feeling really onerous. But I want to think through these ideas and find connections between them. So, to return to the first article. What if the corporate women's self-help books Mlotek rejects – Lean In and so forth – arise from the same culture as the life hacking Sparrow critiques? They both have their origins in the tech sector, and they both encourage adherents to work within systems rather than to imagine ways to flourish around or outside them.

The final article appears on radical, pseudonymously authored investment website Zero Hedge. It's called 'Where the World's Unsold Cars Go to Die', and it's extraordinary because it reveals car manufacturers' obscene reactions to supply shock

Basically, car manufacturing is run using frictionless just-in-time systems that assume a certain steady market. When demand is steady the system works. It's great; you get your car a day after ordering it. However, the continued world recession following the GFC means people simply aren't buying as many cars, or buying them as frequently. There's a glut at the supply end.

However, the manufacturers must maintain the illusion of a market for their cars at full price. Rather than altering the system to produce fewer cars, or pricing them lower, car manufacturers are burying their mistakes. Worse, car manufacturers must produce the appearance of technological innovation, so they are continually advertising newer and better cars they must then make. 

Why? "The car industry cannot stop making new cars because they would have to close their factories and lay off tens of thousands of employees. This would further add to the recession. Also the domino effect would be catastrophic as steel manufactures would not sell their steel. All the tens of thousands of places where car components are made would also be effected, indeed the world could come to a grinding halt."

It is just overwhelming to me to think how dependent we are on systems and procedures, to the point where it defies logic, logistics and economics. 

At the moment I'm driving my brother Matt's 1991 Mazda 626 Eclipse while he is working in Singapore.

This is not the actual car, but it looks exactly like this. I sometimes ponder that this car is 23 years old. But it drives pretty well. And it doesn't seem ancient to me in the way that, say, the 1975 Volvo sedan I first drove in 1997 did, or indeed the way my 1985 Camry did in 2005. Maybe, growing up with a Car Dad has inoculated me to the virus of newness that seems to afflict the car market.

At the moment I'm watching The Walking Dead with my brother Lina. Of all the TV shows I feel an intense pressure to consume, it's the one I seem most interested in right now. And partly what I find interesting about The Walking Dead is that its zombies don't merely bite you and move on; they fucking feast on you. They take massive chunks out of you. They pick corpses clean to the bones. Are they not the ultimate avatars of our Soylent society, keeping themselves busy by consuming, without any 'higher function' in mind? (I still get a lot out of Annalee Newitz's Marxist analysis of horror tropes, Pretend We're Dead. I also notice the publisher's website selectively quotes a very boring bit of my review.)

Part of my fascination with zombie/pandemic narratives is in observing systemic breakdown and renewal: the complete inability of governments, police and the military to control a mounting crisis; the strategies of individuals; the replacement systems they devise; and the decay of infrastructure when nobody is there to keep it running.

I remember reading that the United States' roads and bridges are already in a parlous state, and we haven't even had the zombie apocalypse yet. All those millions of cars just sitting there – maybe it's better than trying to navigate another busted system.

I was expecting a standard longread from the unsold cars story, but that onslaught of photographs is incredibly affecting.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Site Meter