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Inside the Dead Zone

It was at a point when linguistics, cultural anthropology and continental philosophy were converging that philosopher Martin Heidegger proclaimed ‘language is the house of the truth of being.’ The problem at hand was conceiving the role of language in an experiential (phenomenological) sense that closed the distance between the Western inheritance of Cartesian dualism, and with it the need for ‘transcendence,’ and the world.

As abstruse as this probably reads, the political, economic and cultural subtexts of Western modernity: social control, economic concentration and commodification of the social realm, tie through the all-purpose apologia of neoliberal capitalism to shared premises about the structure and nature of the world. What then is to be done regarding the colloquialism ‘don’t shit where you eat’ when the world is home.

Image: Oceanic ‘dead zones’ where climate change, industrial pollution and agricultural runoff, have depleted oxygen levels to the point where nothing lives, surround the U.S., developed Europe, Britain and Japan. The common link is capitalism. One would think the term ‘dead zones’ would cause reconsideration on the part of those causing them. What relationship with the world explains treating it is a garbage dump?

At the nexus of linguistics and cultural anthropology is the otherwise banal observation that different peoples approach ‘the world’ differently. The Western, predominantly Platonic / Cartesian, conception of ‘the world’ as an external object has rough corollary in the astrophysicist’s distinction between the ‘big bang’ as expansion of, rather than in, space. In the prior conception there is no dimension in which to put space. Allow for a moment that this problem of dimensionality applies to key conceits of the Western worldview.

Through erasure of history, identity politics assumes the atemporal dimensionality of ‘now.’ Within it social taxonomy is conceived to be an aggregation of individually constructed identities. ‘Merit’ is individuated competence acting on / in the world. Taken as given are social ‘nesting’ (the ‘in’ dimension above), devolution of the social-categorical to individuated experience (how else could ‘it’ be experienced?) and the permanence of distance (alienation). Here ‘inclusion’ takes the logic of exclusion as its starting point.

Graph: American Whites have claimed more social wealth than Blacks at an increasing rate since the return of neoliberal capitalism. American history— the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow explain the racial divisions. But Western imperialism produced similar differences in wealth distribution outside of these institutions. As the concentration of wealth has accelerated, so have claims that ‘nature’ (markets) explains its distribution. Source: Urban Institute.

Social difference, the historical residual unified by what it is not— the linguistic, onto-anthropological edifice of Western imperialism, disappears through individuation. Liberal strategies of ‘inclusion’ are unidirectional— they proceed as instantiation of imperial directive. As with Adolf Eichmann’s plans for a ‘Jewish museum’ at completion of the Final Solution, through temporal dislocation ‘identity’ is the cultural artifact that celebrates subsumption.

The paradox of Western ‘individuals’ with shared language and onto-anthropological history serves to ‘naturalize’ alienation as linguistic-categorical. Race, gender etc. denote shared histories that are temporally flattened in an eternal present— they are subsumed as inadequate versions of the imperial directive through the direction of subsumption. For instance, the race and / or gender of ‘consumers’ is nested, a subsuming hierarchy is established through de-temporalization.

The seemingly intractable political problem at hand is how to live out the next few decades. Capitalism— scientific economic production, is overwhelmingly to blame for impending environmental calamity (charts above and below) and more broadly, the political economy of annihilation. The Western tendency is to search for technological fixes to problems of technology. This view, as with technology itself, is theological at its core.

Descartes’ ‘dualism’ arose from the effort to reconcile timeless souls with temporal (finite) existence. From this effort the paradox of timeless truths ‘about’ a temporal world link science with its ontological basis in theology. The paradox retains the problem of dimensionality— where do these timeless truths reside (and what do they regard) except the temporal world? Readers are directed to Martin Heidegger and Thomas Kuhn to gain deeper understanding of the issues.

(The issue of Descartes and dualism is recurring, usually with an attempted smack-down by a self-appointed Left. L’affaire Sokol (link above), the last effort to restore gravitas and intellectual rigor to Left discourse, began with a silly prank, since replicated with hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers, by proponents who hadn’t bothered to acquaint themselves with Heidegger’s critique. Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ can be found online here. Let me know if you need me to read it for you).

The ‘pragmatic’ approach to science taken by working scientists in the present is to set the claim of the timelessness of scientific results to the side. However, the issue of dimensionality is both related and more vexing. Acting on the world, as science does, proceeds from being in it— it is reflexive. It isn’t that this isn’t possible— it just can’t be done without making assumptions about the world that can’t be proven.

Graph: The term ‘anthropocene’ universalizes responsibility for climate crisis while resolution requires targeted assignment of blame. Following WWII the ‘American model’ of capitalist production was exported to the former Axis powers of Germany and Japan. The result: American style industrial capitalism is killing the planet through greenhouse gas emissions. The otherworldly (Cartesian) nature of capitalism can be found in the question: where are ‘we’ (broadly considered) going to live when capitalists are done killing the planet? Source: https://www.c2es.org.

For example, it is popular to claim a biological basis for human existence. Understanding then, whatever it might be, is presumably a biological process. To then claim understanding outside of this process is either circular or renders the concept indeterminate. Any ‘method’ such as science proceeds from and must return to it. Deference to ‘external’ facts falls prey to the metaphysical structure of the question.

Of political relevance is that it isn’t just the claim of ‘true’ truth that is theological. The premise of separate and distinct realms, we as individuals and ‘the world’ in the Cartesian metaphysical sense, is theological as well. The Cartesian soul tucked away in its netherworld isn’t a collective ‘we.’ It is a timeless ‘I.’ The sociological premises of capitalist democracy should be coming into focus here. And note that through the concentration of wealth inherent to capitalism, the capitalist ‘I’ benefits (‘self realizes’) by crushing the democratic ‘I.’

The metaphor of biology was used above in part because Karl Marx was influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as he (Marx) was developing his critique of capitalism. Marx’s materialism was a studied refutation of Hegelian (cum Cartesian) idealism. It was hardly accidental then that toward the end of Capital, Volume 1, Marx included the ‘real’ history of the enclosure movement versus the capitalist economists who ‘deduced’ history through regressing then present circumstances back in time.

The distinction isn’t intended to sell Marx, but rather to suggest that capitalism is dubious social theory premised in third-rate theology. Its products to date are nuclear weapons, environmental calamity, four centuries of social misery, death and destruction and a little bit of glittery crap on offer at the mall. As effete as the latter point may read, how would one go about arguing that whatever capitalism (labor) has produced is ‘worth it’ without also claiming to speak for the preponderance of humanity that has seen no benefit but now bears its consequences.

Finally, the analysis here is an allegory for / sideways-inserted explanation of, class conflict. Marx rejected Hegelian idealism while retaining the social-categorical concept of economic classes. Otherwise, the worldly residual of Cartesian ontology is the preponderance of human history that existed outside of it. Philosopher Jacques Derrida distinguished between the linguistic-categorical and metaphysical and went on to develop his own version of materialism. And unless one wishes to dismiss Marx’s impact on political economy, these ideas have social relevance.

More articles by:

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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