Lonely and Full of Wonder

“How to make a moral order appear?”
—Lorraine Daston

Recently my sister shared a contemplation with me. She held out her hands. She lifted one hand and asked, Am I trying to get something? Then she lifted the other hand and asked, Or am I learning to love? Love is something that some of us, some of the time, have to practice, whereas we all know what “trying to get something” means. Competing—that’s capitalist morality. We have all been capitalist subjects, formed by it, made who we are by its imperatives, its metaphysics, its ideologies.

Even life-long anti-capitalists are capitalistically conditioned. But is not “success” the new cognitive dissonance? For what purpose, exactly, shall we die trying in our current pandemic context? There is a reason for the old trope that those who make the revolution will be unfit to live in it. We who have been conditioned by capitalism, even if we are anti-capitalist, must ask ourselves; do we know how to live otherwise; are we capable of it? What would it mean to desire, think and feel differently? There is a window of opportunity in the midst of the tragedy we are living through. Can we jump through it to our better selves, to a higher order pragmatism whose bottom line is not extraction, growth, and profit, but interdependency, ecology, and justice?

Capitalistic nomenclature creeps into everything. For example, into the field of ecology: we say of the dead trees which freely feed microbes and woodpeckers and give a place to stand for eagles, that they are a form of “natural capital” providing “ecological services.” The proletariat trees. Workers in the forest economy. 

A system which defines the worth of a being in terms of their productivity relies on the exploitable abjection of those who can’t perform that script (thus surplus labor–labor in reserve–human and more than human). Those who have a hard time paying their bills, getting medical care, who have always-already suffered isolation and lock down, who have no state, no capital, no habitat, or have found the state and capital to be against them, contend every day with, are embattled every moment by, capitalist “values.” 

Christian Nagler’s Human Capital: A Life (Publication Studio) ponders subjectivity under capitalism. It is a lyrical, phenomenological, analytical tragi-comic novel whose primary protagonist is named Human Capital. He is not a personification of capital, rather his name reminds the reader that for all his intricate particularity, and for all of ours, for all that we know and sense ourselves complexly, we are sorted into bins by capitalism. We are renters, owners, surplus labor, consumers, debtors, the unemployed, human resources, and so on. We are supposed to capitalize; optimize; what have you. I am I because my little ledger knows me. Even when it all falls apart and our days are saturated in the stressful adrenaline panic of not enough money, we expect ourselves to continue striving for capital. The fact that he is so named provokes the reader to link his consciousness, with all its characteristics, all its particularities, to capitalism as culture—that is, to how our seeming individuality is structured by political economy, by the contradictions that inhere to capitalism’s naturalization, not to say over-determination, in the United States, where capitalism has been treated as “nature”—just how things are. 

In Against Nature (MIT) Lorraine Daston explores historical conflations of natural and moral orders. She writes of the antique concept of “specific natures” that these “embrace the characteristic form[s] of things, be they chestnut trees or copper or foxes (flowering, reddish, cunning) and their tendencies…[they] determine how a certain thing… looks and behaves.” Her book traces out and argues against the constant resort to nature, as alibi, as explanation, as rationale, as moral–as reason itself. 

Human Capital, as a character “lonely and full of wonder” is in pursuit of his own elusive nature. If he can determine what he is, perhaps he could become a story. Why does he want to make himself into a story? What is the “specific nature” the protagonist of Human Capital seeks to make himself into? It could be, or so he wonders, to “become demographic in his heart of hearts.” Human Capital is speculatively splayed out. His childhood was “one long day that seemed never to end, never to present any coherent enterprise.” Love is a question, ambiguous, intermittent:

If he believed himself to love something then he may or may not love it. It was not that if he thought himself to love someone then he necessarily did not love, it was that his own awareness of his love for someone had no bearing upon actual love.  

Here is an uncertainty about which Human Capital is certain: he may love, but there is no guarantee that this is “actual love.” What could “actual love” be?

Human Capital recalls a formative experience of watching a dog chase a rabbit. Throughout the chase the distance between the dog and the rabbit remains exactly the same, as if they were “part of the same animal, cut in half, wound up” and set in motion. 

The image of the unchanging distance between dog and rabbit, between predator and prey, is an emblem of any situation in which there is an inbuilt, mechanistic lack that generates an endless chase. Addiction, for example. Or the economic mandate for ‘growth’ in which capital seems to devour everything, overcome every boundary, but is never sated, unvarying in its goal of turning everything into itself. A closed-ended question, it never begins or comes to an end. And stories must vary; they must be capable of open-endedness, of beginning, and most of all of coming to an end. 

If there is anything Human Capital is “trying to get” it is across this gap: the distance between two animals. The plot of love stories as well as mysteries revolve around how such gaps are finally closed–gaps between the lover and the beloved; the mystery and its solution. The problem for Human Capital is that “It’s not everyone in the world whose sensate self has room for the elements that make up a story. The specifics, the characters, the action… All of these things are not features of every being’s private sensation.” Who are these “sensate selves” who lack the “features” and “elements” of narrative rhythms?

In The Scent of Time (Polity) Byung-Chul Han argues against an accelerated way of life that multiplies experiences indiscriminately, such that what is important, what might matter, becomes impossible to discern, narrative progress dissipates, and our lives are reduced to lists, data, information. “General de-temporalization leads to the disappearance of temporal sections and caesurae, the thresholds and transitions which create meaning.”

How can Human Capital become a story if capital never ends? Is capital capable of coming to an end? What would the conclusion of capital be? And what would come after?

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