Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Squeeze of the Hand

The phrase, “This is what democracy looks like,” bears similarities to the species of utterance that logicians call an “ostensive definition.” Ostension relies on examples to define qualities or concepts that language itself is ill-equipped to define autonomously. The quality of being-red, for instance, is difficult to describe purely discursively. An ostensive definition of “red” posits the existence of a set containing “red” (i.e., color) that is exemplified by a bearer of redness in the world: “This color [e.g., of a rose] is red.” Ostension introduces a peculiar tension into logic and language. Through the dynamics of ostension, we see that ideality is yoked to a materiality that it can never fully sublate. The non-self-sufficiency of language necessitates that it take leave of its ideality and tarry with materiality. The deictic marker “this” indicates the mode by which concepts (re)turn to the concrete: pointing. Indeed, the etymology of “concept” (coming from “capere,” to take; the German term is similar, "Begriff" comes from “greifen,” to seize) shows that the physicality of the hand is inseparable from the ideality of the mental conception. The hand is the scandalous remainder—but also the initiating technology—of conceptual thought.

Hands are also the initiating technologyand scandalous remainder—of capitalism. On one hand, we have the “invisible hand,” a theory of capitalism’s distributional efficiency attributed to Adam Smith. Of course, Smith never speaks of “capitalism” and only used the term “invisible hand” a handful of times (three time, I think, in his lectures on astronomy, in Moral Sentiments, and in Wealth). Regardless of fidelity to the Smithian text, the term itself provides a vernacular (and, dishearteningly, even expert) normative conception of capitalism. Yet there is another set of hands that runs through Wealth of Nations: they appear when Smith attempts empirically defining how a market-system does (or should) function. These “hands” are, of course, laborers, figures for bodies that have been transformed into mere synecdoches by capitalism. We might think of the relay between Smith’s hyper-ideal “invisible hand” and the “hands” that labor as the relay we saw at work in ostensive definition: the invisible hand of capitalism can only be made to appear, to achieve definition, by turning to these all-too-material hands. Material hands concretize the invisible hand.

The becoming-material of capital is scandalous to capitalism—particularly in our day, when financialization and post-Fordism would have us believe that we participate in an immaterial economy, an informational economy. From the perspective of these narratives, we are to read capitalism as a process of invisibilization; the hands that labor are continually dematerialized, achieving the very ideality of Smith’s metaphor. Nothing would be easier than to posit an absolute distinction between hands in prior regimes of capitalism accumulation to the one that (supposedly) has taken hold today. Rediker, for instance, describes how the hands of sailors epidermalized their function within capitalist distribution. Tortured and toughened, deformed and calloused, one could tell a sailor by simply looking at his hands—hands marked, in effect, a form of race, a phenomenalization of one’s position within a society structured in dominance. Today, we are told, the paradigm of labor has shifted: the computerization of labor means that hands can remain lily white. (And my invocation of whiteness here is intended to show the ways in which this dematerialization of labor is itself circumscribed to a particular class that is itself structured through racial privilege.) But, of course, information labor cannot fully get rid of the real hands that labor. Consider Bartleby, for instance: how his hands must have (would have, had he preferred to labor) ached, cramped, and contorted. Computerized labor does the same: we now have a long list of occupational disorders. The invisible hand always touches down in (the form of) real hands.

Thus, the figure of the hands—otherwise an “abusive synecdoche” for laboring persons, in Bruce Robbins’ phrase—retains a revolutionary potential, insofar as it links the ideality of capitalism to the processes of its violent materialization. These hands are insistently material, the points at which capitalism matters. Capitalism necessarily produces this little point of materiality even as it seeks to sublate it into an a-material ideality. It’s from this point, the releve of a capital attempting to move beyond its dependence on hands, that we can begin taking in hand new futures.

And, indeed, hands are important to Occupy. Like “concept,” “Occupy” is etymologically linked to “capere”—it is a seizure of space, both a conception and a taking-in-hand of the commons. And hands, in their vibrant materiality, are on display at City Hall: drumming, clapping, “blinking” in affirmation, touching others, hugging, writing, and now freezing as the days shorten. And, I should add, defining, pointing, materializing a new conception of democracy. The “this” to which the slogan “This is what democracy looks like” points is a space in which the vibrant of materiality of the demos is demonstrated and taken in hand. A democratic materiality: here, pointing out democracy is to touch it, to touch one’s being-with-others.

I want to end with another invocation of Melville, this from the chapter of Moby-Dick entitled “A Squeeze of the Hand.” The matter upon which the workers labor (spermaceti) and the means by which they labor (their hands) is insistently and ecstatically present, the material means through which Ishmael comes to imagine a kind of democratic paradise. Melville’s Ishmael never names what takes place “democracy,” but we can. And we can see these squeezing whalers’ hands as prefiguring the insistently material hands materializing democracy at City Hall:

“Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, - Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”

No comments: