…and ride Mankind

wild-west-snake-oil-salesmenWhat boots thy zeal,
O glowing friend,
That would indignant rend
The northland from the south?
Wherefore? To what good end?
Boston Bay and Bunker Hill
Would serve things still:
Things are of the snake.

The horseman serves the horse,
The neat-herd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
‘Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.*

As prep for the radio show I did on March 4th (Interchange – Minded By Algorithms: Digitizing the Word) with Ted Striphas, author of The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control , one of the “news” items I read was a long piece in The New Yorker by George Packer posted on February 17th called “Cheap Words” and subtitled “Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?”

The answer seems to be that, NO, it’s not, but also, that it’s not good for customers either, unless customer is defined as simply a resource for the capitalist to “tap.”  What we learn is that Amazon is in it for the data. This is probably not a shock once you think about it, but we seem to have been persuaded that our primary issue with Amazon is the “nature of the book.”

However, as Striphas points out in this piece (from 2010, ancient!), “Kindle: The Labor of Reading in an Age of Ubiquitous Bookselling, this is a misdirection (I’d call it more baldly a confidence game).

The debate about whether Kindle can or cannot “outbook the book” clearly is a smokescreen, one whose terms invite debate around an intractable issue. Like the magician’s art of misdirection, it draws attention to the artifact itself while deflecting it away from the broader productive relations of which the device and its content may be considered the “form of appearance,” or their material concatenation. What’s really at stake with Kindle is Amazon’s desire to re-invent itself as a company where the buying and selling of retail goods is not an end in itself but also a means by which to obtain valuable client data. In a more abstract sense, Amazon.com is actively producing laboring subjects in and around an everyday practice—the reading of books and periodicals…

Which is to ask “What is Kindle making of you?” and “Into what is Kindle making you?” This must surely be another way of asking what interest is being served. There’s only one that matters anymore, Business. Which is to say, “nothing,” or “emptiness.” Business is an emptiness. Like a mathematics equation–it carries no meaning inherent with in it.

***

America is the land of opportunity…but as each of its ringmasters has said, to our faces, rather IN our faces, America is the land of opportunity FOR ringmasters. The American Dream IS that each of us wants to be the Confidence Man so we may prey upon the poor marks (if we’re not THE Confidence Man we cannot guarantee we’re not the mark). The truth, as you already are well aware (aren’t you?) is that we are all marks (who ain’t a slave?, asks Melville’s Ishmael). The Dream is a Myth and so becomes a Useful Fiction.

If you don’t believe that, well, my wish for you is that you can at least find some happiness in this degraded state. Because, guess what? Knowing the Dream is a Myth is a Con creates a real anger and angst about that degraded state. It’s hard to find peace. But then, why is that of value? I never have felt so alive as when in opposition.**

The true interest of the US as a “legal” entity (and by extension, all oligarchs and “top of the heap” capitalists, once called Robber Barons) is “more, more, more.” That’s the goal of any hegemony. Here’s the opening of a piece about the Ukraine, but really, it’s “subject” could be any “field” of dominance.

When it gets complicated and confusing, when you’re overwhelmed with too much information, changing daily; too many explanations, some contradictory … try putting it into some kind of context by stepping back and looking at the larger, long-term picture.

The United States strives for world domination, hegemony wherever possible, their main occupation for over a century, it’s what they do for a living. The United States, NATO and the European Union form The Holy Triumvirate. The Holy Triumvirate has subsidiaries, chiefly The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, International Criminal Court … all help to keep in line those governments lacking the Holy Triumvirate Seal Of Approval: the IMF, WB, and WTO impose market fundamentalism, while foreign leaders who act too independent are threatened with being handed over to the ICC for heavy punishment, as the United States imposes sanctions on governments and their leaders as only the King of Sanctions can, lacking any sense of hypocrisy or irony.

This is a good enough definition for “Business” as a mode of organizing social systems and natural resources (that is “life”). Which is to say that the same “drive” or immoral interest is in force.

What is the law that business legislates for all mankind? The law of business is caprice; caprice expresses the absolute will of business, hence its will is absolute irresponsibility, the attitude  which aggressively and emphatically ignores all other motives. Business is thus pure irrationality, and as a negation of the conditions of order, becomes a negation of the essential functions of nature itself. It is the denial of both civilization and culture, neither of which can exist in its presence….

In business intelligent and serious interpretation of presented facts is never called for; intelligence is not involved at all. Only the individual with the strongest motives, motives least checked by moral sensitiveness, can survive. The psychological make-up of the business “mind” is therefore a mere collection of disconnected motives, impulses entirely without conscious direction or moral unity of purpose, hence without intelligence. A “decision” of such a mind is merely the triumph of one motive, the worst, over the rest, particularly over any impulse to sympathetic appreciation of another’s stake in the situation. The latter impulse is “inefficiency.”

But the triumphant motive is as blind and insensate as the others over which it prevails. It is thus that business requires a strong “personality,” and it is this that explains the prostitution of psychology and psychologists to the production of such monstrous “minds.” Thus can be explained the “great” “minds” of our “great” business “leaders”; who can put over a “deal” without regard for the human or moral values involved. A utility or an oil magnate can buy a legislature with the same nonchalance with which he will adopt a policy that will leave homeless and helpless thousands of the very men who produce the property upon which his power depends. Thus does his brutality equal his ignorance….

In short, the type of mind demanded by business is entirely lacking in either intellectual or moral capacity or character. Business feeds upon falsehood and has not the intelligence to see that its lies cannot be validated by further lies. This fraudulent ignorance has become implemented in a unique method–propaganda–the method of disguising its own lies by advertising.  (Jordan, Elijah. Business Be Damned. 1953.)

This seems to describe the Bezos presented in Packer’s article.

But so too the way that Business subsumes modes of thinking to its own ends (more!). For example, “Corporate Mindfulness,” which is to say the subsumption of the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness.”

As for Buddhism, contrary to popular reports it is not primarily about stress reduction for middle management. For the Search Inside Yourself program developed at Google, mindfulness training builds “the core emotional intelligence skills needed for peak performance and effective leadership…. We help professionals at all levels adapt, management teams evolve, and leaders optimize their impact and influence.”

The authors of this piece (“Apple and Amazon’s Big Lie“) go on to point out the way the dominating ideology of Business works to “synchronize” the modes of action so they fit the same “end” (efficiency) even though this is exactly the opposite of a Buddhist “end.”

Buddhism has its own orienting perspectives, attitudes and values, as does American corporate culture. And not only are they very different from each other, they are often fundamentally opposed to each other. Indeed, one of the foundations of Buddhism is the idea of right livelihood, which entails engaging in trades or occupations that cause minimal harm to other living beings. And yet in the literature of mindfulness as stress reduction for business, we’ve seen no suggestion that employees ought to think about — be mindful of — whether they or the company they work for practice right livelihood. Corporate mindfulness takes something that has the capacity to be oppositional, Buddhism, and redefines it. Mindfulness becomes just another aspect of “workforce preparation.” Eventually, we forget that it ever had its own meaning.

The stress of performing actions for no other purpose than the “ends” of the corporate “will to power” becomes the reason for meditating. That is, mitigating the “law” of Business, “absolute irresponsibility,” requires forgetting 1) that the “caprice” is what is causing the stress and 2) that one way to mitigate it is to not participate in it.

But finally, this is the rationale behind “things” also. Investing energy, excitement, attention in “things” divests one of the ability to do the same with people . Things mediate us, mitigate us; things are us (strange how I’ve only just now realized how brilliant the “Toys R Us” name is). I’ve always understood McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” to mean that content, in this perspective, is meaningless (filler). Which is to say that the content is subservient to the mode of delivery. Finally the mode of delivery is more interesting (interested) than what it conveys. (Have you seen how many tech review/promo/info sites there are?)

The fact of a THING need not be contested (its right to exist a given). What the “thing” does then is regarded as to its performance (its right to exist and do is a given). The responsibility for the THING is diffuse to say the least and rests nowhere (a gun is inert until made a tool of the agent, so the argument might go).

THINGS are really only regarded as “market” measures via economic categories. Morality is everywhere absent.

Endlessly we blather about THINGS…but are distracted from the human and natural realities around us. It was more interesting that the Arab Spring “was made possible” by Twitter accounts and cell phones. Of course, who knows if there was any “spring” to speak of or “who” really made it happen? Several items of this particular situation will escape my understanding forever. But I can understand the “function” of technology and I can be persuaded of its great usefulness.

And so I go on in ignorance while placidly praising the march of progress.

 

*From Emerson’s “Ode, Inscribed to William Ellery Channing.”

** “Thoreau.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Eulogy of May 9th, 1862, published in the Atlantic Monthly, 1862

There was something military in his nature not to be subdued, always manly and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, I may say required a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum, to call his powers into full exercise. It cost him nothing to say No; indeed, he found it much easier than to say Yes. It seemed as if his first instinct on hearing a proposition was to controvert it, so impatient was he of the limitations of our daily thought. This habit, of course, is a little chilling to the social affections; and though the companion would in the end acquit him of any malice or untruth, yet it mars conversation. Hence, no equal companion stood in affectionate relations with one so pure and guileless. “I love Henry,” said one of his friends, “but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree.”

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Douglas Storm is a host and producer for Interchange on Bloomington, Indiana's community radio station WFHB. "Why then do you try to 'enlarge' your mind? Subtilize it..."

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