What the “sharing economy” shows us about the social bond under neoliberalism

Hitchhiking used to be commonplace. Now we think of it as dangerous, but studies have shown that one was no more likely to be a victim of a crime while hitchhiking than in any other situation. And it makes sense — when you do a favor for someone, are you usually looking for a way to exploit or harm them? Do you open the door for someone hoping they’ll let their guard down and you can pick their pocket? For at least a brief window in American history, that baseline expectation of human decency was enough to make hitchhiking an attractive option.

Nowadays, most of us wouldn’t imagine getting into a stranger’s car. The very fact that they were willing to pick us up would make their motive suspect — unless, of course, we know that their motive was to make money. Give us a smartphone app and a financial intermediary (as with Uber), and we’ll happily jump into some random person’s car.

Something similar is going on with Airbnb. Obviously their system allows people to make arrangements that would have been difficult if not impossible to make without an intermediary of some kind before the internet as well. Yet we have a kind of “natural experiment” insofar as Craigslist allows people to post and respond to ads for free and make further arrangements without anyone taking a cut. Lo and behold, it turns out that Craigslist seems “shady” and disreputable compared to Airbnb. (This result is of course overdetermined insofar as Craiglist’s total lack of filters has made it a hotbed for scammers and criminal activities — and yet.)

This is the strange thing about the “sharing economy.” In theory, we could always “share” things with each other at any time, but we generally don’t — unless some kind of combined financial/technological intermediary legitimates the transaction by giving us a fancy website and taking a cut (as the Craigslist example shows, the technological intermediary alone is insufficient). We don’t trust each other directly, don’t trust basic human decency. Instead, we trust money’s power to make people behave in the ways we expect. We only let down our guard when we know there’s a third party who’s skimming a little money off the top in exchange for making us feel like there’s someone to sue if things go wrong.

Milton’s Dangerous Game

[Obligatory disavowal of any implicit claim to be saying something original about Milton.]

In the wake of the #CancelColbert saga, I’ve been thinking a lot about the attempt to “subvert from within” — not just Colbert’s method of subverting the right by portraying an (only slightly) exaggerated right-winger, but things like Watchmen or Game of Thrones that seem to want to expose the ugliness in their respective genres by amping it up a hundredfold. As I discussed with Gerry Canavan in a long-lost Twitter conversation, it doesn’t seem as though this strategy ever actually works. Right-wingers can happily watch Colbert, and audiences receive the “subversive” extreme version of a given genre as a particularly badass example of that genre. Even if it does sometimes achieve the desired end, adopting such a sophisticated, roundabout strategy is surely a dangerous game.

As I finish up Paradise Lost in my devil class, it seems to me that Milton is engaged in a similar dangerous game. He doesn’t merely want to join the epic tradition, with all the one-upsmanship that has always implied — he wants to destroy it from within, rendering the traditional epic impossible. In this view, the fact that the devil is the hero of the epic in traditional terms is not some scandalous secret, but rather the whole point: the heroes of traditional epics were wicked men, and the kinds of activities that were lauded in the epics (war, deception, etc.) are evil. Hence the devil does all of that, taking on the role of proud Achilles, crafty Odysseus, etc., and all of his actions are portrayed as being nihilistic and pointless. The hope is that Paradise Lost will break the spell of the traditional epic and highlight how much more amazing and meaningful the Christian narrative of redemption is.

Hence Milton was not secretly on the devil’s side — only his unshakeable faith could allow him to pursue this strategy so naively. Only a committed Christian could be so tone-deaf to how bad God comes across and expect proto-modern audiences to prefer God just because he’s God. As with other subversive meta-commentaries on a genre, the only person who would receive Milton’s critique as intended is someone who doesn’t need the critique. For everyone else, the extreme epic poem where the devil himself is the hero appears to be a particularly badass epic poem.

Immanence and Hadewijch

Readers might be interested in a series of posts being written by David Driedger, who is of course a long-time participant at AUFS. Titled “Excessive Love,” they address the intersection between immanence and Hadewijch. From my understanding, there’s one post still to arrive, but Parts One, Two, Three, and Four are already up.

“We still don’t know if it is a joke or not”: Final Reflections on A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” – James Baldwin, “Faulkner and Desegregation”

At the end of this book event I wanted to offer a final reflection. It isn’t clear to me if such a work is a token of my gratitude or an imposition that people read yet more of my words. But I hope here to express my gratitude for all the care each of the respondents showed in their posts. Anyone who has ever published knows that it is an event laden with anxiety. Will they hate it? Will they mock me? Will they understand me? Will anyone even read it?! So to be read in such a kind way by so many friends was truly humbling and I am thankful to all of them for taking time to pay me this honor. Perhaps more importantly were the challenges that they put forward to me. These remind me again of the perversity of nature as present in our thinking. Nothing is ever finished, nothing is ever done, but neither does nothing need to be finished or done. So I can go about the work of thinking again and again, with the knowledge of a kind of salvation given in the secret that there is nothing to save. Only, instead, is there a World to breakup and in that breakup we may find a kind of fidelity to the earth, a kind of uncovering of the earth that lies beneath the World, and upon that earth we may find each other and the grace that exists there even amidst the violence that will remain. Read the rest of this entry »

Collapse Is the Name for the Collision Between Economy and Ecology: A Response to Joshua Ramey (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)

Allow me, in the stumbling attempt to respond to Joshua’s difficult provocation to just for a moment put on my best Rust Cohle mask. To stay outside of Carcosa for just a moment, even though the World is already Carcosa, I want to push it off for a moment through a pessimistic fabulation. I was a child when green consciousness first took hold of me. The first Earth Day and shows like Captain Planet made very clear to me the precarity of living on this planet, to say nothing of the general anxiety I had about geopolitics after I first became aware of the massive violence being held back by even more violence. That anxiety was first fostered when I saw the word “coup” on TV and watched tanks rolling through Moscow. I understood that this country was like ours and yet it was radically transforming. I didn’t understand much more than that, but the very fact that such a radical transformation could take place frightened me. Then it cemented when my step-father was sent to Kuwait during the First Gulf War and I watched every night as the green light of night-vision cameras captured the reigning down of death upon Baghdad and as they trumped up the threat of Scud missiles killing “our boys”, that is, my step-father.

I was born, like everyone, into a violent and stupid World.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Living Theology: The Eucharist in Question” event details (5/16/14)

The UCC Theological Summit (“Dallastown II”) will convene on Friday, May 16, 2014 at 8:30 AM at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, 205 W. Main St., Dallastown, PA.  The event will feature guest facilitation from Dr. Victor Taylor of York College of Pennsylvania and a session via internet with Carl Raschke of the University of Denver–two names with whom most readers of this blog will be familiar.

Although the focus of the event will be on practices and theology of the United Church of Christ, registration is open to anyone.

The papers scheduled for the day are: Read the rest of this entry »

Metaphor and the Ecological Transfer of Energy: A Reply to Adam Kotsko (A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature Book Event)

Adam’s post brings to the fore a question I was asked repeatedly when I would present papers based off my research or when I would go in for the doctoral annual review process. More than once I was surprised to find a theologian ask, “but isn’t your use of ecology just metaphorical?” I always wanted to say back, “Is your discussion of the Trinity or work on the bodily resurrection just metaphorical?” And, as Adam rightly deduces, my suggestion that it isn’t a mere metaphor has nothing really to do with the current trend in theory to prostrate before some chosen science or as Laruelle sums up the history leading to this moment: “After the reading of philosophical texts (Derrida), of Marxist texts on history (Althusser), of Freud (Lacan), and then of the Human Sciences (Foucault), the interpretation of great mathematical texts is invited to take up the baton. It is decidedly the case that here, philosophy (and in particular, French philosophy) falls back into its habitual, pusillanimous mistakes, refusing to experiment with philosophy itself in its being, rather than just its objects, languages, and intra-philosophical becomings. This philosophical immobilization by way of history (as obligatory as ever, if often denied) is consummated, paradoxically, in a philosophy ‘without history’ (Althusser and Badiou). A philosophy that ends up as a lazy queen, who hitches her carriage up to a pack of scientists, and can only get going by riding in the wake of the history of sciences (Anti-Badiou, p. ix).” This is a strange continuation of what is perhaps most damning in Continental philosophy where students used to be encouraged to spend their life explicating Heidegger (a figure to whom, like Adam, I find I keep returning to), but are now encouraged to dedicate their intellectual talents to explicating the science that gets everything right. My attempt at a unified theory is a failure if that is what the engagement with ecology ends up being just as much as if it were a mere metaphor. Read the rest of this entry »

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