Inching Towards Utopia (Some Notes)

Three ‘brief’ thoughts, leaping off from yesterday’s post:

1) The pastoral urbanism of the ‘heritage industry’ (which is but aesthetic ornamentation for speculative endeavors, motored by the vicious cyclone of finance capital) re-imagines the city in terms of a future-without-futurity—see the wonkish, green-dipped powerpoints from any current development program—while also scrambling the classic division between town and country. The mixed-use enclaves of the metropole strive to re-establish, in fictionalized form, the aura of the small country town, the Anywhere U.S.A. The specter of the countryside—also found in the proliferation of farmers markets, community gardening, etc—is treated as a faint alternative to the (post)modern city.

What the heritage industry obscures is the hidden past of the modern(ist) countryside, and here it forms the counterpart to contemporary regressive populism, which articulates itself as standing against cosmopolitan progressivism, associated with cities, as the bearers of a buried tradition. And the ‘cosmopolitan’ intelligentsia, its elite benefactors, and the media apparatus through which it operates, more often than not fulfills precisely these expectations. Yet what is lost through this double-sided capture is the history of agrarianism that, instead of committing itself to the unending toil of archaism, embraced modernizing processes as fervently as the city-dweller. The Farmers Alliance and the subsequent People’s Party, for instance, were less the neo-Jeffersonian yeoman dreamers with which they have become identified: Charles Postel, The Populist Vision, argues (convincingly, in my opinion), that the embrace of science, bureaucracy, and even the new, nationally-integrated state, was central to their agenda. One minor example is the fascination the agrarian populists had for The Progressive Farmer—a journal far more radical and practical in its embrace of science and technology than the later publications of the Technocrats could ever have hoped to be.

Screenshot from 2020-08-06 08-52-19

(Thomas Frank’s recent writings have explored this same territory, even mentioning the Progressive Farmer).

Going a bit broader—it’s clear that in the case of America, modernization never exclusively followed the pathway of the city alone. Deleuze and Guattari’s comments that everything ‘follows the American way’—be it the functioning-by-breaking-down thrasher of capital or culture’s filiation via offshoots and splintering—can be mapped across the constant movement from the centers to the margins, a give-and-take that simultaneously escapes the city but re-establishes it elsewhere. On and on. This reaches its climax in the breakdown of any hard distinction between the ‘rural’ and the ‘urban’, as the former becomes completely subsumed in the reproduction circuits of the latter. The privileging of the form of the city, from this position, ceases to make much sense.

The dismissal of the countryside that can often be found scattered throughout various Marxisms (and critiqued by anti-Marxists) can often be tracked back to the comment made in the Communist Manifesto about “rural idiocy”. It conjures the mental imagery of the country bumpkin, the hayseed know-nothing—but as John Bellamy Foster has pointed out, the understanding of ‘idiocy’ here refers to its classical lineage, the designation for one who is excluded from the richness of cultural and political life. The diagnosis of this deprivation was widened in the first volume of Capital (the wonderful fifteenth chapter, to be precise). On the one hand, the city concentrates within itself large swaths of the population, giving rising to the “historical motive power of society”. But,

[o]n the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town labourer and the intellectual life of the rural labourer… In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer.

Hence the necessity of overcoming the ‘town-country antagonism’, which must be set within the context of, on the one side, the ecological dimension of Marx’s critique (as Bellamy Foster points out, the division between town and country, industry and agriculture, peasantry and proletariat, is the root of the ‘metabolic rift’), and on the other, the basis for class struggle itself. It’s ironic then that in a way the division between town and country appeared as if it was overcome, precisely at the moment that Fordist gave way to post-Fordism (modernism to postmodernism), through the standardizing force of national highway system and the development of the suburbs. But the appearance was in inverted form: the highway continued to sap the countryside and in the long-run has contributed to concentrate within the urban core, while the sprawl itself was conditioned and further by the expansion of capitalist social reproduction. Close, yet at the same time far away.

It’s interesting, given this dynamic, that as the Soviet Union moved into its most promethean mode under Stalin, the great developer, a school of thought competing with the concentrating forces of the five-year plan was the Disurbanists. They preached of dissolving the antagonism between town and country through scattered settlements and automotive nomadism: the homes were to be modular, and sometimes would even be on wheels. Individuals and families could expand or contract their living spaces, and they could move about as they see fit. The infrastructure for this new life was to be long, highway-like corridors that crossed the landscape, dotted by the usual amenities (“collective services”) and industrial sites located in close proximity to the natural resources through which they were fueled. This scheme would dissolve the city (or help form the ‘planetary city’, which was an alternate view espoused by some Disurbanists) while simultaneously attempting to strike a balance between industry and nature, and between the individual and the collective. There’s an uncanny resemblance between these utopian schemes and the ‘car culture’, suburbanization, and commodified anti-urbanism that would begin to flourish in America only a short-time later. If the latter appears as overcoming the town/country dialectic in inverted form, maybe this was it right-side up.

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2) If the postmodern breakdown of town and country can be viewed as the inversion of the desired posthistorical utopia, so too can the eclipse of ‘high culture’. The collapse of high culture into the everyday that it sought to escape—or, alternatively, the explosion of the grimy realm of everydayness into the hallowed sphere of high cultural expression—is exactly the goal of the aesthetic avant-garde and the political revolutionary alike. One can imagine (and this was what the early Soviet avant-garde did imagine, and at least partially achieved) a ‘culture industry’ whose output is delirial futures, non-spaces of grandeur, consumable objects whose aura radiates from a spiritual core…

It seems to be that this is what is truly at stake in Mark Fisher’s ‘post-capitalist desire’, which takes its lead from Jameson’s controversial comments on Wal-Mart to pose the question of whether or not the desire for Starbucks, iPhones, and other much-maligned consumerist ‘trash’ contains, within itself, the desire for a world beyond capitalism. One of the things that I loved the most about Fisher’s proposition is to see the maniac world of fast-food franchises, hotels, shopping centers and box stores in relationship to the technicolor Soviet dreamscape of collective cafeterias and dwelling places. Here, again, the Soviet vision seemed to suggest a right-side up version of the American globalized postmodern landscape. It becomes a time-scrambled twist on Kojève’s declaration that Marx’s communism was being realized in America, and that the Soviets were but ‘poor Americans’ accelerating themselves towards this point.

Long ago, Cockydooody wrote a post linking Fisher’s reflections on forms of fashion—goth fashion in particular—to the ‘comrade object’ theorized by the constructivists during the NEP era. The ‘comrade object’ was “meant to seduce with its industrial nakedness, to create an emotionality through revealing how it works, how it’s made, what it can do for you as an extension of the human being”. Through this seduction, it would transform the lives of the viewer or the consumer, “denoted them as new beings”. While Cocky makes an excellent case for the relationship between the comrade object and Fisher’s earlier “Soviet goth aesthetic”, it can also be equally applied to his late ‘post-capitalist desire’ project. The movement towards the higher stage of whatever it is that is buried within the consumerist object as an object of desire (The Thing) is the movement from the base commodity to the comrade object. (There is an added twist, I think, in that Fisher’s early comments on seduction that informed Cocky’s post are drawing directly from Baudrillard’s writings on the topic—seduction is the final game left at the end of history, a game without resolution that undermines the untextured, pornographic character of our time through the elaborate game of masks. This seductive dance, which had nothing to do with un-nuanced and unambiguous eroticism, is in my mind Baudrillard’s extension of what Kojève saw possible at the end of history: action in the weak sense. Nothing left to do but aesthetic self-cultivation).

The post-capitalist consumer object, the comrade object, ties itself nicely together with the disurbanist program; after all, did the endless string of fast-food franchises, the hotel and motel chains, the mass-produced paperback and ticky-tacky of trinkets, postcards, shot glasses and other ‘mass cultural’ detritus not find their highest expression not merely in cities, but in the mad circulation promoted by car culture? These are the cultural forms promoted by the eclipse of the town/country antagonism—but what could they become? But this blog has been here before: the kitsch surrealism of the roadside attraction as hinting towards the fusion of art and everyday life, the avant-garde dream realized.

3) The last point is about the way that, years after he took (neo)regionalism to task for its reterritorializing function in The Seeds of Time, Jameson offered his own quasi-regionalism in his mammoth tome on utopias, Archaeologies of the Future. It occurs in the course of a meditation on Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean, which Jameson describes as a ‘poetical’ or ‘experimental’ historiography not unlike Benjamin’s Arcades Project. Here, the Mediterranean rises up as the “great inland sea”, and mind’s eye of Braudel becomes something like a roving camera or sketchbook, roaming wildly over the vast expanse of blue seas dotted by islands, lush valley, harbors, city-states, and enclaves. Crossed by trade-routes, these scattered locals become linked together into a common tapestry characterized by a cascading internal variation. They are pockets of different temporalities, whose encounters and interconnections builds history itself—even if the inner, domestic lives of their inhabitants seem as if they are shielded from history’ blows. It is, in the words of Braudel, “a world of sudden contrasts”. His prose is vivid, incantatory, and we are swept along in breathless rush:

The Mediterranean lands were a series of regions isolated from one another, yet trying to make contact with one another. So in spite of the days of travel on foot or by boat that separated them, there was a perpetual coming and going between them, which was encouraged by the nomadic tendencies of some of the populations. But the contacts they did establish were like electric charges, violent and without continuity. Like an enlarged photograph the history of the islands affords one of the most rewarding ways of approaching an explanation of this violent Mediterranean life. It may make it easier to understand how it is that each Mediterranean province has been able to preserve its own irreducible character, its own violendy regional flavor in the midst of such an extraordinary mixture of races, religions, customs, and civilizations.

For Jameson, Braudel’s luminous reflections unveil the ‘hidden truth’ of the local or the regional. Just as he slipped into the language of Deleuze and Guattari in his critique of neoregionalism, he resurrects their off-handed dismissal of the solutions posed by Samir Amin in the infamous ‘accelerationist fragment’:

….not cities attempting to revive their enfeebled existence by way of tourism, gentrification, Disneyfication, or the Olympics; not fantasies of high-tech industries and the renewal of urban property by way of the magical power of micro-chips; nor even the Left fantasy of delinking, in which a local socialism or progressive nationalism heroically breaks with the great global networks and goes it alone.

This localism without the insular, (neo)archaic locale is treated as nothing short of the true structural underpinning of “Utopia itself”. Recall that the disurbanists spoke of dissolving the super-city by ‘decentering’ it; Jameson’s Braudelian utopia is cast into the hazy recesses of the future and treated as the “the ultimate rebuke of the centered subject and the full deployment of the great maxim that ‘difference relates'”. Such a utopia would require a “permanent or structural basis” through which the system is no longer treated as closed mechanism, but a device that open, flowering. But it’s not an ‘open system’ of the type systems analysis, complexity theory and other corporatized ‘sciences’ of capitalist apologetics apprehends in their dreary dreams. The necessity of the structure is generative of the contingent; it allows the ‘unassimilated excess’ to roam freely. Paralleling his American Utopia, Jameson suggests that some sort of federalism may be the silver key to unlocking just such a structure.

Screenshot from 2020-08-07 13-44-14

And then he strikes out and grapples with the same question that Fisher’s post-capitalist desire, the comrade object of the Soviet avant-garde (and revived by Cocky) are also toying with:

This is the great lesson of Fourier; and it is also the source of the deeper libidinal attraction of freemarket propaganda, and, indeed, of the figure of exchange itself; the squaring of the circle of the old paradoxes of the one and the many, the autonomous and the dependent…

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