|Illustration: "More Crows than Eagles"|
[W]hile the AIDS epidemic affected a real community of mutual support, the heroin epidemic specifically strikes down people whose communities are already gone. -BoingBoingA recent article on the blog More Crows than Eagles: More Coyotes than Wolves gives a name to a new social class: the "unnecessariat". In one of the follow-up comments, the blog author references William Gibson's (2014) science fiction book, "The Peripheral". I happen to have read that book so it's a source of interesting images, but in a spoiler-free nutshell, it concerns people who are (apparently) peripheral to the machinations of power, and the ability of those people to project themselves into another frame using a "peripheral" device. This seems like a good metaphor for the status of the author, who has reached a wide audience with this piece.
The link I've drawn between "Unnecessariat" and the Phatic Workshop lies in the slogan "Silence=Death" used as an epigram in the former. I wondered whether it was possible that this silence-that-equals-death might (in a rather strange way) be a phatic silence.
Ephratt (2008) writes:
Silence is a means of maintaining contact and alliance in the phatic function.In a straightforward reading of the "Silence=Death" formula, silence refers not to contact, but to the severing of contact. This is presented here in the form of a not-so-candid historical fiction about the overcoming of said dis-connection, spoken by Hillary Clinton:
[B]ecause of both President and Mrs. Reagan – in particular, Mrs. Reagan – we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it. Nobody wanted anything to do with it."Silence" in this construction is represented as blocked communication. But Clinton's version should be contrasted with a more historically accurate telling of the story, this time from one of the people who produced the iconic "Silence=Death" poster,
I would argue that it was the AIDS activist community that actually created [the image], a community in search of its voice, one that went on to find it through the activation of its own social spaces.This statement posits a rather different kind of silence, one that exists prior to speaking. And, interestingly, we can observe that to begin with this silence is itself "passed over in silence" -- i.e., although it is presented as a verbal slogan, the slogan is communicated as-if non-verbally, in the form of an image. And it seems quite clear from the quote above that this particular image did indeed fulfill a phatic function.
The viewer of the image would enter into a relationship with it -- certainly not a "conversation." Rather, the viewer of the image is necessarily silent, and, in the formula at the heart of the image, it is the viewer's silence that is equated with death. That, undoubtedly, is an uncomfortable experience, but perhaps also a healing one -- for example, the viewer may engage with this necessary silence as a "moment of silence" in which to mourn.
And, on that note, let us turn the heroin epidemic discussed in the "Unnecessariat" article.
In previous posts, we've looked at Bruce Alexander's theory of addiction and some of its implications. In accordance with this theory, the summary from BoingBoing quoted above comes as no surprise. In Alexander's theory, people turn to drugs (and other addictions) not because of some force in the drugs themselves, but because of a desperate search for connection.
Recent research in neurology seems to partly confirm this theory, by pointing to the existence of "loneliness neurons":
Instead of focusing on the aversive state of being alone, this study looks at how social contact gets rewarded in the nervous system. Then loneliness becomes understandable as a lack of reward.If we're prepared to accept the folk axiom that all forms of "reward" (drugs, sex, companionship, etc.) are interchangeable in the brain, then it seems reasonable to think that the AIDS and heroin epidemics are both responses to the above-mentioned "lack of reward."
I'd approach that kind of folk psychology with scepticism, but this sort of negative phrasing also has philosophical problems, namely, it belies the creative role that loneliness can play:
Simondon locates [the] becoming of the transindividual, somewhat paradoxically, in solitude. Andre Ling on Intra-BeingIt seems to me that the psychological "lack of reward" can also be put in positive terms, as part of a problem-identification phase of existence. If someone is plugged into society, they are, quite likely, already engaged in solving existing social problems. Someone who has "left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains" (as per the first sentence of "Zarathustra's Prolog") may be in a position to think of new problems.
Where does this put the Unnecessariat? It seems to me that in an inverse of the way in which the silence-that-equals-death can be phatic (as per the above analysis), the White Light/White Heat/White Noise of "reward" can readily undermine social contact. Demonstrating that would need a good bit of work that is beyond the scope of this article, but let me come to the theme suggested by my chosen title for an example.
[T]he world has drifted away. We aren’t precarious, we’re unnecessary. The money has gone to the top. The wages have gone to the top. The recovery has gone to the top. And what’s worst of all, everybody who matters seems basically pretty okay with that.In this setting, the "reward" is economic. And this situation stands in direct contrast with the idea at the center of de Tocqueville's De La Démocratie en Amérique, which puts forward the following principle on page 1:
The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.This more than anything is the world that has drifted away. This can be seen, among other places, in the political sphere, which has entered a post-truth phase. The linked article highlights Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, but Hillary Clinton seems to be a key part of the club -- indeed, in the "Unnecessariat" formulation, so is everybody who matters.
This is effectively by definition. In the Animal Farm formula, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." We can add a further detail: that these more-equal animals are more equal "... in and through their mattering." Here's how T. S. Eliot put it in his rejection letter to Orwell, sent on behalf of Faber & Faber:
And after all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm – in fact, there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.But of course, he was writing from the perspective of "someone who matters."
Here's how "Unnecessariat" continues:
The new bright sparks, cheerfully referred to as “Young Gods” believe themselves to be the honest winners in a new invent-or-die economy, and are busily planning to escape into space or acquire superpowers, and instead of worrying about this, the talking heads on TV tell you its all a good thing- don’t worry, the recession’s over and everything’s better now, and technology is TOTES AMAZEBALLS!Again, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton -- though not especially young -- are both good examples of the kind of self-fulfilling mediated prophecy described here. The fiction at the heart of the new un-democratic America -- and here we recall that fictio means fashioning, forming, formation -- is that people "matter" the more they are mediated.
And here, I think, is where the idea of an "unecessary class" is particularly apt. In fact, they aren't to be passed over in silence -- at least in Trump's fantasy, they're to be walled off, much in the same way in which the dead are separated from the living in the telling of Baudrillard's Symbolic Exchange and Death. In a summary by Gary Genosko:
[I]t is not so much that death is controlled but rather that it is excluded in the monopoly of global power of the “good, transparent, positive, West,” a system whose ideal is “zero death,” as Baudrillard puts it, and which at all costs neutralizes the symbolic stakes of reversibility and challenge.
|In lieu of an actual sugar skull from Día de los Muertos, here is the cover of a comic book about disavowal and opiate addiction that probably does an even better job of communicating the idea I had in mind.|
I am wondering if this economic phenomenon is less about greed and schemes than the inevitable fallout from blind ‘more efficient tech at all costs’ commitments. Overpopulation due to over-efficiency, if you will, in almost just one generation. No one except sci-fi writers seems to have seen it coming.To wrap up, the elogy is in two parts: First, from an album that's about as old as I am (to within a week or two),
I don't need no arms around me
And I dont need no drugs to calm me.
I have seen the writing on the wall.
Don't think I need anything at all.
No! Don't think I'll need anything at all.
And second, this image, from Poe's tombstone -- referencing "talking birds":
CAVEAT: UNFINISHED WORK
I'd like to finish this off with an "afterword" that connects the ideas here to Jakobson's article. But I have to wait for another day on that. Some rabid speculation and gnashing of teeth continues in the comments for now.