Follow your dreams!

I watch a lot of Hulu, and so I watch a lot of commercials — indeed, a lot of repetitions of each individual commercial. I go through cycles: I’m initially relieved to see a new commercial to break the monotony, then instantly sick of it already the second time it shows, and then gradually work up to the point of sublime over-analysis. In addition to the permanent damage this has done to my mental health, it has given me a finer-grained appreciation of a genre that most of us simply ignore.

There is one iron law of commercials: the consumer’s long-term life goals are always and only their “dreams.” The viewer of a commercial does not have a passion or a vocation — he or she has precisely a dream… and the financial sector is there to help them follow that dream.

In this one simple formula, we see the hegemonic tendency of neoliberalism put on display. Our entire economy runs on dreams. No longer is capital content to extract surplus-value from labor, it wants to extract surplus-value directly from the meaning we can find in labor. We are so desperate for some type of non-alienated labor that we’ll do it for free for the hopes of one day doing it for pay. Universities, publishing — essentially every industry with any promise of creative expression runs on dreams, dreams that are fulfilled only for the smallest number of people necessary to make them seem attainable for the vast masses of broken, exploited dreamers.

This is in one sense a proof of Marxism, a proof that labor and production are a crucial part of what it means to be human, as well as a proof of how much we — in the wake of Fordism, which provided a security that to us living today seems like an intolerable prison — recoil from alienated labor. And somehow this situation has not produced liberation but simply opened up new and more intimate terrain for exploitation. Capital is happy to indulge our fantasies. It is happy to play along with our distrust of capital by allowing us not to sully ourselves with such petty considerations as money when creative self-expression is at stake. When we fail, it leaves us space to arrive at a healthy balance between blaming ourselves and resenting the imposters who stole our place by succeeding — something we unfailingly do, for free.

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19 Responses to “Follow your dreams!”

  1. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    There is one car advert I “like” because it could be so much better if done in Zizek’s voice: “Maybe it’s called the beaten path because it can be beaten?” And then followed up by a quote for Lacan or Hegel, of course…

  2. bob mcmanus Says:

    The Last Psychiatrist spends most of his space analyzing advertising and commercials, obliquely and confrontationally but entertaining for some, but calls what you may be talking about more concretely “aspirational images.” As a psychoanalyst he would, but I am also attracted to the idea that eg “freedom” is more likely represented cognitively by images rather than some aggregation of abstract words.

    But your post is dead-on.

    “resenting the imposters who stole our place by succeeding”

    What happens when I think this, or hate on “bankers?” Do I retrieve an image of Wall Street, Michael Douglas/Gecko, Jamie Dimon, Obama, Don Draper? Maybe not.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I was thinking more about how people who don’t make it in a particular field come to view the successful people within that field as a bunch of mediocre imposters. For example, in academia.

  4. Ben Says:

    Nice.

    Reminds me of three things. First, John Berger’s claim in Ways of Seeing that advertising is not about selling products but selling you the lifestyle of someone who would possess the product in question. Second, the fact that Americans “vote their aspirations.” Third, Stiegler’s discussion of how late capitalism replaces belief with trust (and, and I think this is more me than him) keeps denying people the things that it promises and thus destroys that trust.

  5. Christopher G (@galtenberg) Says:

    I have a dream. Wonder what my odds of financing are. Just think of the fees I’d be willing to pay!

  6. E S Says:

    Arendt says the utopian aspect of Marxism is the dream of non-alienating labor. So what does it say that this is now the drive behind unmitigated exploitation?

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The key difference is that in Marx, it’s collective non-alienated labor, whereas under neoliberalism, it’s all about becoming your own personal small business, building your personal brand, etc. Admittedly, collective non-alienated labor does exist (Wikipedia, Linux, etc.), but there’s no way of protecting it from reappropriation by capital — cf. how Google and Apple have both profited hugely from their operating systems, which are based on free software foundations.

  8. dbarber Says:

    As with Christianity, media — though no longer those of bread and wine, ecclesia and heresy — both respond to and impose aspirations for a fulfilled humanity.

    Which is also to say, i think the basic limit of Marxism here is the discourse of alienation / exploitation (or even work in general, however broadened via its feminization, its becoming-affective, its becoming-immaterial, etc.). The moment you see yourself as alienated / exploited, you cede the ground of aspiration. And it’s this imposition of aspiration that out to be the point of antagonism.

  9. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    I don’t understand this comment about the “basic limit of Marxism” – are you saying as soon as Marxism tells us we are alienated from the products of our labor, we lose “the ground of aspiration”? Does that mean we shouldn’t disclose that we are all alienated because otherwise it will spoil our pursuits of unreachable neo-liberal dreams? Marxism’s point seems to be that knowing about the true conditions of exploitation make one motivated to change these conditions, no?

  10. dbarber Says:

    On the contrary — my point is not that alienation makes us lose the ground of aspiration, it is rather that it keeps this ground. In other words, as long as we stay in a discourse of alienation / exploitation, we keep in place the discourse of aspiration. It can still be said that we are exploited insofar as we are alienated from our aspirations.

    Whereas the problem is having aspirations. So yes, no doubt, Marxism’s point is that knowing the conditions can motivate one to get out of those conditions. My point is that our condition is not domination-by-exploitation, it is domination-by-aspiration. To focus on exploitation thus does not touch the heart of the matter. To focus on exploitation is to wage a fight within the field of aspiration, whereas what ought to be done is to fight against the field of aspiration as such.

  11. dbarber Says:

    ok, my apologies, i see where i was imprecise in my first comment: instead of “cede the ground of aspiration” i should have said something like “cede the fight against the ground of aspiration.”

    In other words, i didn’t mean to say (though i did imply) that Marxism gives up the ground of aspiration and then only neoliberalism has it. I meant to say that Marxism grants the ground of aspiration, it gives in on / to the ground of aspiration.

  12. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    So we must fight the aspiration itself? And since Marxism still gives us hope for some future non-alienated labor, then it is not fighting the aspiration? I guess I see the point now, but I don’t understand why we need to find dreams. Therefore if it is a limitation to promote dreams as such (not all dreams are the same), then it’s probably a good limitation to have. Why do we need to get rid of the “discourse of aspiration”? It sounds like the proverbial baby with the bathwater move – just because neoliberal dreams are shit, does not mean we need to throw away all socio-political aspirations, no?

    It is similar to the argument that since Soviet Union was such a horrible place, any attempt at a discussion of future social improvement must be shouted down with a chant “Gu-lags! Gu-lags! Gu-lags!” – all utopian thinking is forever foreclosed…

  13. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    Sorry “why we need to fight dreams”…

  14. dbarber Says:

    The point i was making about the link to Christianity was that the discourse of aspiration is not something that starts with neoliberalism. And my larger way of thinking about this would not be to try to sort the good from the bad aspirations, but rather to try to get at the recurrence of aspiration, or its relative permanence, its very long and seemingly inescapable history. So in mentioning a limit to Marxism, i mean that it belongs to / participates in this history … in offering us aspirations of liberation it doesn’t really address liberation from aspiration. (that last phrase needs qualifications, for sure, but i think you get my point.)

    A perhaps separate, though i think related point (need to work this out better): it seems to me that the scope of domination, properly understood, is broader / more intensive than alienation allows, insofar as alienation presupposes a prior belonging. And aspiration, i think, always leaves in place this presupposition — one aspires to something that, even if one never empirically had it, is presumed to be owed, an ought, etc. This way of thinking (aspiration, alienation, etc.) doesn’t seem to touch on the reality of domination, not in the way, say, that extermination would.

    Another way of putting this: one shouldn’t begin from the position of the worker, not even from the position of the subproletarian or more broadly conceived worker … there is a kind of domination that precedes the exploitation of the worker, and this is domination by way of extermination. (i.e. domination is not ultimately economic in the sense implied by the capital v. exploited labor duality)

  15. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    I think I see your larger point now. Not meaning to take over the thread but if you care to elaborate what “liberation from aspiration” looks like (and why it’s desirable, which is my original issue), I would be interested to know. There are several “should” and “shouldn’t” in your point but it’s not clear where this normativity is coming from.

    Sure, nature dominates us by constraining our physical movements, but it’s silly to fight this domination as such (perhaps in part by, say, building airplanes or figuring out new ways of extracting energy and so on), it’s always there and, arguably, it’s not really domination since there is no one dominating us, there are just the general circumstances of being an embodied human being.

    Perhaps I am too human-oriented in this, too human-oriented…

  16. dbarber Says:

    This is something i’m working on, and i’ll hold off on any broad elaboration just because in this context i think it’s best to brief and i’m pretty bad at being brief until i’ve worked through something fully, which i haven’t as of yet. A couple things, though, more briefly.

    You’re right about the normativity. And this is one of the things, especially, that i’m not as articulate about as i need to be. But, off the cuff, the normativity here has to do with the constraint of history, or of the history of domination. So the normativity has to do, at the very least, with understanding the nature / history of domination. I also take as normative something like a demand for liberation. What’s at stake, then, is a normative demand for liberation that cannot be imagined as transcending an account of the given mode of domination. Broadly speaking, i actually think this is not all that different from the way normativity works in Marxism, which takes as normative a demand for liberation and a demand to understand the given mode of domination. What i’m saying, in this sense, is that Marxism doesn’t understand the given mode of domination. This mode is not adequately understood in terms of capital v. labor, or in terms of economy, or in terms of the exploitation / alienation of humans. And my reason for this, very bluntly put, is colonialism and slavery. These latter are matters of extermination rather than alienation / exploitation. In these matters, the dominated do not have a human substance to be exploited or alienated from. This is a different scenario than the capital-work relation of domination, since — on the Marxist analysis — the capital-work relation presumes that the worker, at least theoretically speaking, has or is owed something, has aspirations or is owed the fulfillment of aspirations, independent of the exploitation / alienation enacted by the capital-work relation. For me, this evades the reality of a domination in which such independence is utterly absent. And to think this reality that is thereby evaded is something that is normative, in my view.

  17. dbarber Says:

    p.s. which is also to say that what i’m trying to get at is pretty anti-human, but it’s not post-human … it’s anti-humanism has to do with different matters than those at issue is weird realism or accelerationism or hidden essences of cotton, etc, etc.

  18. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    Thanks for taking time to explain your point to me. I disagree vis-a-vis colonialism/slavery – capital vs labor works pretty good to describe these. No colonizer colonizes for the sake of colonizing – it’s all about extraction of surplus-value. Colonized/enslaved do not need a status of human being to be exploited, they need a quality of human labor (ability to increase value). I don’t think extermination is the goal of colonization/slavery at all. What’s the point of colonizing to exterminate?

    But this is taking the thread far off track, so perhaps it’s best to leave it at this…

  19. dbarber Says:

    Yeah, there’s a lot i could say on this, but briefly:
    - the point is that colonizing *did* exterminate, regardless of whether you think that was rational
    - i don’t think “it’s all about extraction of surplus-value,” to say that is to set up a pretty strong realism / explanatory mechanism on behalf of economic profit; my point is that what’s at stake here is much broader than economy … there’s the sense of redemption, of symbolic violence, of capacity to exterminate, to humiliate others, to survive / outlive — in any case, surplus value needs first to be imagined (hence my relation of aspiration back Christianity)
    - my point was not the colonized / enslaved need status of human being to be exploited, it’s that their domination is not reducible to the exploitation of human labor — hence to stick with the concept of exploitation is to remain in a “localism” of capital-labor relation


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