Jazz Thoughts

Basic mechanics of modernity

Notes on the value of (human) life

The modern era can be viewed [1] not only through the historical lens of Western empire as it enfolded colonialism into postcolonialism, but according to the ascendence of economics over both politics & religion. Whereas politics had been charged with negotiating divergent interests, religion was the home of "value" per se. In short, the arc of constructing liberalism according to merchant (or bourgeois) values only steepened during the modern period, such that under (contemporary) neoliberalism [2], so-called "market value" — i.e., "everything has its price" — has been elevated into a transcendent position [3]: Such (mathematical) unity of value fits modern notions of mechanizing & systematizing nature, i.e. prioritizes legibility & calculation. Indeed, the transcendence of a single concept of value can be viewed as the endpoint of modernity per se. As the economic comes to dominate the State — i.e. as wealth comes to dictate (even supposedly) democratic political outcomes, alternative conceptions of value are desperately needed.[4] (Rather, one might say that simply the concept of an alternative is increasingly needed.) Since such values have traditionally been associated with religion, these notes will address that perspective. And because it was Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, that constituted the (conceptual) background for modern regimes of discovery, and moreover since the Catholic Church continues to function (with many millions of adherents around the world), these notes will be addressed explicitly to the Catholic tradition. In that sense, they are very narrowly conceived.

In particular, religious values, including Christian values, have been oriented on life itself: While not an exclusive orientation for religion, life will be the focus here. Whereas such values have been oriented on humanity, human needs exceed humanity per se, such that traditional values have always included reference to animals & plants as well as non-living things. Given the contemporary world situation, in particular mass extinction & environmental crises, these very brief notes will also take (small) steps toward expanding beyond human-bound conceptions. However, they begin with a modest interrogation of Catholic values:

The Catholic Church, together with many traditional institutions, has long maintained that human life possesses value above & beyond any utilitarian component it might or might not possess (whether that be its labor, or even, in an increasingly cynical mode, its organs for transplant, or anything else): Such an approach must be extended to all life, as well as to non-life, at least to the extent that it supports life — human or otherwise.[5] (And such support should be presumed.) Indeed, the notion that any entity or object in the world might possess a quality beyond its instrumental (e.g. "market") value is consistent with transcendental religion in general, and so one benefit of such an orientation must be to adopt a healthy skepticism regarding the purported harmlessness of any particular worldly action.[6] Moreover, if everything is connected, and Christianity has always posited that it is, then any simple nexus between value & allocation (to return to economics [7]) becomes increasingly muddled: In short, how might overemphasis on self-preservation actually impede self-preservation? Modernity's demand for risk-free accumulation has increasingly forged just such a dynamic.[8]

Imperial (capitalist) colonization of the biological, together with its underlying intellectual biologism, must be confronted: Pace the forgoing demands, such a confrontation can benefit from engaging traditional institutions — e.g. religions — that value life itself beyond its market value. That such values are learned from a young age means that they simply cannot be left to a presumptive empirical method, since any such method will be based on prior values. So values are taught, and must be taught. In that sense, religion remains the domain of values, even if religious teachings are subsequently reappraised according to further (individual, ongoing) study.[9] Tracing & reinstituting non-market values around life (& so biology) has become increasingly urgent in the contemporary era, as neoliberal hegemony continues to reconfigure both biological life [10] & its environment.[11] Such (re)institution, then, suggests (existing?) institutions, and these notes sketch some of the significant issues involving one such institution.

  1. Hence I take an "ocularcentric" stance here, one implicitly based on distance: Note by way of caveat that, even per the periodization posited by Basic Mechanics, my distance from modernity is not so great.

  2. I follow Larry Grossberg in conceiving of neoliberalism as a kind of fundamentalism, i.e. as an attempt to elevate a single concept of value above all others. Grossberg notes such fundamentalism as an outcome of widespread confusion over different values & their commensurability (or, one might say politically, their negotiability).

  3. Thus economics comes to occupy the transcendent position that had previously been occupied by religion & its values. Economic values have become our (socially) transcendent values.

  4. Many writers, dating to the early Marxist tradition & elsewhere, and including an updated (and rather perverse) recent plea from Fredric Jameson, have sought a "third term" to unravel modernity's capitalism-State knot (duality). In such a (frequently dialectical) context, religion has generally been resisted as a third term for being non-modern.

  5. One might ask, moreover, why prioritize life, given that life emerged from non-life? Beyond such a question, I follow others in suggesting a priority on the relational qualities of life. How do we relate to others? What others? What sorts of "collective consciousness" are there? What sorts of "alternative beings" or assemblages? Such relation must also be interrogated according to concerns for justice: So how might a "speaking" geontology (per Elizabeth Povinelli, Marisol De la Cadena & others) compare to an "internet of things?" In whose service is each? Further, how do temporalities of different creatures (& non-creatures?) relate? How do different temporalities coexist within one being? "Life" is far more complex than reductive biology has accommodated.

  6. Indeed, one might apply such skepticism regarding harmlessness to early modern Western disinhibition & its imperial outcomes. People & institutions of European heritage, including the Church, bear responsibility for those acts & how they continue to shape the world.

  7. I had raised the concept of a nexus between value & allocation in Remède de Fortune, and one can note that neoliberalism simply attempts to "collapse" (much as I discussed gender spheres above) allocation onto value: Whatever produces (market) value receives (an) allocation, and such value is narrowly conceived according to production per se — in other words, allocation is (only) for purposes of production, per Basic Mechanics. We need a new, or renewed, horizon from which to articulate this nexus. (We must also resist urges to collapse or systematize domains of value more generally, particularly for reasons of legibility.)

  8. Moreover, neoliberal fundamentalism has put such a premium on market value & generating (explicitly calculable) wealth that it increasingly marginalizes various regimes of care: We are told that there is a labor surplus due to automation, yet so many things are not done — simply because the neoliberal economy has no means of support for doing them. Such a situation seems only to become more skewed.

  9. One might thus embrace religion according to a pharmacological approach, i.e. as both cure & poison. How might it be used appropriately? (If such teaching, i.e. from a transcendent position which can only subsequently be interrogated, always exists anyway....) I also caution against reimposing dualism via a logic of rejection: Study cannot be (only) about distancing oneself from one's past.

  10. Stefano Harney & Fred Moten emphasize the concept of logistics, and how supply chains — to cite Anna Tsing as well — allow the contemporary regime to move away from population management (i.e. biopolitics) per se, and into automated production & distribution. (Note, moreover, that much of modern logistics arose as military science. It became prominent in civilian business only at the end of the modern era.) At that point, a population is not so much "exploited" (e.g. for its labor) as it is marginalized or displaced. (Bruno Latour notes, perhaps paradoxically, that the more automated something is, the greater the number of people required to maintain it: In other words, since people's noninterference enables logistics, there is already a gap into which human values can be reinserted. Such a gap is obscured by both aesthetic glory & increasingly severe legal penalties against interference, however.)

  11. Via "multiculturalism" & similar logics applied to environmental tourism, the diversity of life itself becomes a neoliberal commodity. (Once again, one might consider a pharmacological interrogation of this phenomenon.)

Todd M. McComb
24 April 2017