Mind Matters

Capitalism & the Self

Mind Matters is a newsletter written by Oshan Jarow, exploring post-neoliberal economic possibilities, contemplative philosophy, consciousness, & some bountiful absurdities of being alive. If you’re reading this but aren’t subscribed, you can join here:

Hello, fellow humans!

I’m very excited to share my latest podcast. I spoke with Barnaby Raine - an absolutely brilliant intellectual historian working on his PhD at Columbia - about the relationship between ‘capitalism’ and ‘the self’ for 3 hours (😬).

The episode is a tour through the history of the question: how has capitalism shaped our experience of who and what we are? He guides us from Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 1700’s, through to Michel Foucault in the 1980’s, and we conclude by tracing where the question is heading in the 21st century.

More on the conversation below, but for now:

Listen Here

Precarity & the Production of Subjectivity

Here's a theory: precarity is the main force driving us to become human capital, a process I've elsewhere called the capitalist production of consciousness.

The more precarity there is, the more forceful the 'production of subjectivity' in economic terms is. Mauricio Lazzarato writes (in his - upsettingly…flat? - book subtitled Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity):

“For the majority of the population, to become an economic subject (‘human capital,’ ‘entrepreneur of the self’) means no more than being compelled to manage declining wages and income, precarity, unemployment, and poverty in the same way one would manage a corporate balance-sheet.”

This passage tipped me off to the connection between precarity and economic subjectivity. But first, what does it mean to "become an economic subject"? What is 'the capitalist production of subjectivity', other than a catchy flash of rhetoric?

Consider this. You don't make a lot of money. You don't have a reliable or fulfilling job. You live with an ambient sense of economic insecurity. When you don't have enough money, and aren't secure in your access to the resources you'll need to live and sustain your life, you will think of ways to earn more money. Your behavior will be determined, first and foremost, by the maxim: "I should do that which earns a return on the market to get more money. I should also do things that increase the amount of money I can get, because then I'll be one step closer to banishing precarity from my life, and can think about more interesting things.

But if precarity is sustained, if it does not go away despite your actions, you will remain in this basic framework of behavior. Apply the old idea: you are what you do (or Sloterdijk's punchier framing: “It Is Time To Reveal Humans As The Beings Who Result From Repetition!”), and you see how sustained precarity can drive us to become, to assume the ontological stance, of human capital.

Lazzarato's passage suggests that assuming this ontology, producing ourselves as economic subjects, is simply the rational choice when faced with rising precarity. It’s not some insidious plot whereby capitalism coopts our humanity. People are hard-wired to survive, and survival considerations are what the philosopher of consciousness Thomas Metzinger calls functionally rigid:

“…the degree of flexibility and autonomy in dealing with the contents of self-consciousness may vary greatly: emotions, or sensations of pain and hunger, are much harder to influence than for instance the contents of the cognitive self-model. There is a gradient of functional rigidity…”

We do not have the pensions, low housing prices, reliable career trajectories, or rising wages that the mid-20th century had. We, instead, have more precarity. Precarity is functionally rigid - you can’t just think about something else. It’ll color your mind.

Consider Lauren Berlant’s thesis, that precarity has risen with neoliberalism since the 1970’s, driven by the “neoliberal feedback loop, with its efficiency at distributing and shaping the experience of insecurity throughout the class structure and across the globe.”

And as precarity spreads, the rationality of governing ourselves in accord with economic logic rises. We have more imperative to remake our lives so that they generate higher returns on the market.

So more precarity means more people will use economic rationality to govern their lives. But what about the inverse?

If precarity declines, then so does the prevalence and obvious-ness of economic rationality. If I am less concerned with getting more money, my behavior is less bound to whatever markets will pay more for.

This is why folks like André Gorz see basic income as a step towards the 'ontological multidimensionality of existence'. A sufficient and unconditional basic income would wipe out a significant layer of precarity, loosen the grip of economic rationality on decision-making, and open the door for other forms of rationality to stretch their atrophied limbs (because as Max Weber knew, one can rationalize in any direction).

Annie Dillard’s Moth: Art & Emptiness

At the tender age of 27, Annie Dillard completed a book of narrative prose - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek - that shot her to the top of the literary world.

This put her in a strange position. The heights of public acclaim are a befuddling place from which to contemplate her subject of interest: God.

“There were offers from editors, publishers, and Hollywood and network producers. They tempted me with world travel, film and TV works, big bucks.”

So, she did what any of us would do (right?): she ran as far away from the big bucks as she could. In fact, she picked up an atlas, closed her eyes, set her finger on a random spot, opened her eyes, and promptly moved to the random spot her finger landed. A small island in Puget Sound near the Canadian border. At 30 years old and the height of literary acclaim, she lived alone in a cabin.

“I was then in full flight from success, from the recent fuss over a book of prose I’d published the previous year”, she writes. She thought a lot about her self-imposed celibacy. “I was there to turn from literary and commercial success and to rededicate myself to art and to God.”

"Would Christ have gone on television?", she muses (much later on) during a weekend spent with a New York Times reporter. We might inwardly roll our eyes at the vague comparison of herself to Christ, but perhaps because we've lost the appetite for that sort of devotion. We want someone who's brilliant, but doesn't take themselves too seriously. Devotion, with a cool splash of irony.

Anyway, when she retreated to that cabin she wrote a passage about a moth drawn to a flame, that ignites and mostly melts, but then its charred carcass remains ablaze, like a second wick, for hours. She liked the metaphor of the artist needing to empty themselves before doing their work. To burn off your wings, limbs, fuzzy skin, and whatever else will go, until nothing but your emptied carcass remains, and you become "like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God."

Years later, she wrote a short essay about that moth-passage, because it turns out, it was in writing that passage (and the absurd, wonderful book it lives in), that her atlas-jumping rededication to God redeemed itself as not totally insane. She side-stepped the big bucks and moved forward in her work.

Would Christ have started a newsletter?

Metzinger: The Heavyweight in Consciousness Theory

I’ve just finished Peter Watts’ stupidly good science-fiction novel, Blindsight (some collected quotes here). Mostly, it’s about consciousness. In the appendix, he cites sources and inspirations for the theories explored in the book. There, he takes a little jab at most scientists who publish books professing to explain or discuss consciousness.

“Most authors are shameless bait-and-switchers when it comes to consciousness”, he writes:

“Pinker calls his book How the Mind Works, then admits on page one, ‘We don’t understand how the mind works.’ Koch writes The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, in which he sheepishly sidesteps the whole issue of why neural activity should result in any kind of subjective awareness whatsoever.”

I love me a good jab at Pinker. Then, we get to Thomas Metzinger. I wrote a bit about Metzinger in my essay for The Side View, but I hadn’t yet read his big, impossible to read, impossible to understand, yet surely brilliant magnum opus: Being No One. That’s the trade off. If you actually try to write a book that explains consciousness, it won’t be a best seller. Like Annie Dillard, the question: are you going after God, or the big bucks? Are you writing a book to make others interested in the questions of consciousness, or are you trying to answer them (both are great! But different projects entirely)?

If the latter project, you’ll find yourself rather lonely. Maybe isolated, on some remote island near the Canadian border. But even as oblivious readers, we can tell that you took a real shot. Relative to the Pinker’s and Koch’s stabs, Watts writes of Metzinger:

“Towering above such pussies, Metzinger takes the bull by the balls. His ‘World-zero’ hypothesis not only explains the subjective sense of self, but also why such an illusory first-person narrator would be an emergent property of certain cognitive systems in the first place. I have no idea whether he’s right—the man’s way beyond me—but at least he addressed the real question that keeps us staring at the ceiling at three A.M., long after the last roach is spent.”

You can listen to Metzinger on Michael Taft’s Deconstructing Yourself podcast, or Sam Harris’. Or, you can read his book The Ego Tunnel, which tried to make the ideas from Being No One more accessible.

Or, like me, you can buy Being No One and let it sit on your shelf, happy to know that our foremost theory regarding what consciousness is, and what the self is, is sitting close at hand.

Capitalism & the Self: Podcast w/ Barnaby Raine

Getting to publish this conversation with Barnaby is a high-point of the podcast for me. It’s 3 hours of pure goodness (if you happen to be enthralled to the same highly-specific niche topic overlap as me: economics & consciousness).

This is the first time he’s publicly presented this side of his work, and getting to offer him a platform to do so is as good a service as I think the podcast can offer the world. If you’d like a better idea of what we cover before committing to a 3-hr podcast, check out the episode page, where I assembled a more detailed time-map of topics than usual.

In the weeks to come, I’ll make smaller Youtube clips of topic-specific segments, and add them to the episode page. In the meantime, if you’d like to see how vague ideas I’ve written about (such as ‘the capitalist production of consciousness’) have solid footing in the history of ideas, this podcast adds a lot of substance to that phenomenon.

Listen to the Podcast

That’s It

A heartfelt thank you to the new Patreon supports of the podcast: Adam, Clare, Fuldor, Kenny, and Sue. The stability (and recent rise) of Patreon support is allowing me to really consider shifting more time & resources into the project, which is a dream.

As always, you can respond directly to this email with thoughts, comment on the Substack version of this post for public discussion, or reach out on Twitter. You can find more essays & podcasts on my website. I’m here for conversation & community.

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Until next time,