All small and local fires are part of the general conflagration: that’s the nature of fire, which only had to be brought to earth once, against the wishes of the gods, and immediately it was available everywhere, as universal as Coca Cola. Systemic and necessary lacks – collaterised debts, bonds, traded futures – do double duty as gaping holes: the burned building, the boarded up shopfront, the empty or obliterated hoarding. They are like airholes punched in a shipping container in which one is travelling without a passport.
Again and again, the same fire: 519,278 views and counting. The display window indifferently frames every image, but the reason one can’t really do anything with this provocative sameness is that it only expresses an underlying consistency; it is not a phenomenon in its own right. If every email conversation is adorned with the same insensitive Google ads suggesting that I go on a cheap holiday or learn how to keep a lover, haven’t I earned this as much as been subjected to it, not perhaps by my own volition, which is irrelevant, but by my unwilled participation in a system that produces an endless replenishment of sameness?
From what standpoint can I criticise this production of sameness – from the arrogance of one who believes herself to be, somehow, immune? No, it’s because it doesn’t accord with my subjective sense of the world. Reality seems to fall short of reality. This subjective dissonance is the precondition of critique. Because I am sentimental, tired, easily hurt, I give this dissonance the temporary name “love,” and mortgage everything on a dubious future in which… everything may be, but probably will not be, different.
The word crisis originates from an Indo-European root, krei, meaning to sieve, discriminate, distinguish. Crisis is measure, and capitalism, famously, is crisis: a petrified and endlessly repeated moment of measurement, eternally projected forward into a future that never arrives. But what does it mean, to make a measure, a field in which some things recede and others draw close?
John Wilkins is credited with first suggesting a universal standard of measurement, in 1668. He also proposed a universal language traversing national linguistic boundaries, which he imagined would be spoken by merchants, philosophers, and travellers. His attempts to construct universal symbolic systems have not survived, but universal measurement was an idea for which the ground had been long prepared. Capitalism is rooted in the principle that any two or more different things can be made commensurable through money: it is the money-measure that produces both sameness and difference. This principle affects every aspect of human life.
Wilkins suggested a standardised measurement for length based on the movement of a pendulum. In 1791, long after his death, this idea was rejected by the French academy in favour of another standardisation based on a proportion of the circumference of the Earth (an idea also suggested by Wilkins but that he thought would be impracticable). This gave us the meter. The gram was arrived at later, on the basis of the weight of a cubic centimeter of water.
The difficulties encountered by early attempts at standardisation all had to do with the inconvenient complexity of real, living things; the globe is not a perfectly smooth round sphere, for example, and the weight of water depends on its temperature. Undeterred by this unexpected multiplicity, these crusaders persisted, arriving at measurements that are in fact only tangentially related to natural phenomena. Measure is abstraction – an abstraction that contains in itself the image of a concrete world that has been abstracted. In the end the matter was decided politically, through the signing of a convention in 1875 in which industrialised western countries agreed on the standards of measurement still used today.
Capitalism requires a pseudo-objective measure of value. It proposes not just theoretically but practically and in every area of life that different things are the same and can be exchanged. Value is sameness, homogeneity, a universal language. It is this that renders naïve or superfluous other attempts to construct universal languages.
What is the basis of the universal identity conferred by money? The goods we exchange are related in terms of the labour that went into producing them. Thus the objective sameness that apparently only relates innocuously to things also relates to human activity. Capitalism gives over the field of the social to value. It makes people into things, and things into something more than things: they dance with each other, they change places, they determine our fate.
Because it is already based on a profound abstraction, the simplest exchange contains in germinal form, in potentia, the baroque financial instruments we see today, such as credit default swaps, which have metastatised risk throughout the populations of Europe. To many people in Athens, Oakland, London, this figure of speech based on the spread of cancer must seem not just a metaphor but a literal torture exacted on the body, like a metre rule divides sea, land, swamp and mountain alike into the same flat and devastated ground, first through a theoretical then through an actual process of domination.
Marx writes, “the characters who appear on the economic stage are but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them. What chiefly distinguishes a commodity from its owner is the fact, that it looks upon every other commodity as but the form of appearance of its own value. A born leveller and a cynic, it is always ready to exchange not only soul, but body, with any and every other commodity.”
Accusations against measure from the standpoint of love: you, who should have loved me, have exchanged me for her; your love is not involved in, is not moved by, my singularity (how could you be so untroubled by the prospect of losing me?) or, your love does not recognise my miraculous fungibility (what does she give you that I could not?). We argued late at night: I said bitterly that to have many lovers is the same thing as having no lovers at all; he countered, but you’re all so different, so specific, how can you be compared? As always we were both wrong, and both right.
It could be that I love him because like a commodity he is ready to exchange body and soul with anyone, or, to put it bluntly, he sleeps around. I’ve always liked sexual profligates: they cause all kinds of trouble, it’s true, but they give you another kind of comfort: the ambivalent pleasure of taking your place as a woman among women or a body among bodies – they allow you to embrace the empty spot at your own core. Every action, every word, every gesture, has been reproduced or might be reproduced with someone else.
And yet, like those scientific experiments in which the moment of measurement is also the moment of destruction, my (immoderate) love, as naïve in its own way as the dream of a universal language, wants only to make present and tangible a truth that is always passing away. This is the standpoint of love, of destruction: it will not wait, does not know how to wait, for future happiness. In relation to its object it offers not commensuration, but a remaking in the ecstatic fire of a happiness that will never come.
Thanks to S.K.