We are so civilized

A graphic designer wearing a handmade sweater is drinking a fruity cocktail with some friends on the terrace of an “ethnic” café. They’re chatty and cordial, they joke around a bit, they make sure not to be too loud or too quiet, they smile at each other, a little blissfully: we are so civilized…They find communion in the smug feeling that they constitute a new humanity, wiser and more refined than the previous one.

This quotation comes in Fifth Circle of The Coming Insurrection, which is titled “Less possessions, more connections!” and it should be read with caution. It is undoubtedly funny and a poignant critique of the world emerging around us, but the dichotomizing negativity – a negativity of which I am completely guilty, countless times daily – could potentially obfuscate what I think is the real kernel of what the Invisible Committee is telling us. For earlier in the pamphlet they hint at the complexity of the unconscious; of what might lurk beneath, say, the sunny disposition of the “knowledge worker” having brunch:

The possibility that behind every grocer a few bad intentions are hiding, and behind every thought, the act that it calls for. The possibility expressed by an idea of politics – anonymous but welcoming, disseminate and uncontrollable – which cannot be relegated to the storeroom of the freedom of expression.

In other words, you never know who has this pamphlet in their back pocket, and the project at hand, it seems, is to find others who are also sympathetic to the critiques leveled within it.

I’m writing this with my interests in the most recent waves of urban redevelopment for the upper middle class in mind. Studying a place like South Lake Union – a place that is a burgeoning biotech hub and the home of Amazon.com – often makes me question what its role in radical politics might be. And though I am not studying political movements directly, I am nonetheless intrigued by thinkers who strive to make connections between radical politics and the increasingly well-heeled urban denizen who has nothing in common with a laborer in Engels’s Manchester, a slum-dweller in Dharavi, or a stereotypical anarchist as represented in the media.

I am particularly compelled by Hardt and Negri’s conception of a new proletariat, the Multitude, which is constituted by both material laborers and immaterial laborers, such as the computer programmers at Amazon. Moreover, I’m even more drawn to their idea that the necessary linkages need to form in the city: “the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial working class” (Commonwealth, 250). The important thing – and I’m reminding myself more than anything – is to not rule out others based on the degree to which they seem to be embroiled in a lifestyle I criticize. Conversely, we should be actively seeking out connections with others, and be cognizant that the feelings upon which these connections can be built occur at an imperceptible depth. Somewhere in his essay “Ritornellos and Existential Affects” Guattari says that affect is pre-individual, and that affective resonances connect individuals. The challenge, for me especially, is to open myself to this possibility instead of making jokes about brunch and tapas.

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3 thoughts on “We are so civilized

  1. Pingback: On becoming-poor: we are so civilized | My Desiring-Machines

  2. It reminds me of Ranciere’s injunction to us in The Emancipated Spectator to not assume, with Debord (he argues), that the spectator is merely a blank canvas on which the spectacle paints its picture. Rather the spectator is actively making sense of the stimuli she is receiving. And she is connecting with others to make meaning together with them. So the Am-holes at Cuoco eating their fresh pasta (there are so many ways one can skewer that shrimp) might not be empty-headed, self-satisfied automatons. They might instead be filled with angst, wondering when the axe will fall on them the way it just fell on that whole division Amazon decided wasn’t productive enough. Or they are filled with resentment at the Am-holes who got in before they did and made a mid-level fortune on stock options. Or they are unfulfilled, feeling like they are squandering their creative abilities building a better mousetrap for the modern day Sears-Roebuck, wondering if they have the courage to go back to graduate school….I bet Ranciere is right, that there is a whole world unfolding in there, but we will only be able to see it if we develop the habit of looking.

    • Moreover, I can’t help but think of the signs of this anxiety that are expressed and potentially reveal the disheveled inner states of people who are unhappy in the Amazon machine but unaware of how deeply it might be affecting them. In particular, I’m thinking of Crispin’s example of people shoveling food in their mouths at the Whole Foods, or the anxiety that surely accompanies constant tweetering in order to maintain one’s personal brand. Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism is the only thing I’ve ever read about the everyday lives of the immaterial laborers — and that was a few years ago — but the more I think about it, the more I’m compelled to revisit it. Boltanski and Chiapello’s The Spirit of the New Capitalism is supposedly written in a similar vein.

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