Ghosts of Our Pasts: Neoliberal Subjectivity and Crisis (Part 1 of 2)


In the moments of globalization, we find ourselves simultaneously at the fusion point of five distinct scales of experience: the intimate (the level of personal/interpersonal experience); territorial (the level of local experience); the national (the level of state experience); the continental (the level of regional and geographical experience); and the global (the level of transnational/transcontinental experience).1 Traditionally, borders could be drawn between each – there was the nuclear family, the factory, the neighborhood, the local economy and its politics, building up to economics and politics on the national stage. We no longer have, nor have had for the past twenty or thirty years, an existence routed in these simple structures. As matters of economics and politics become increasingly interdependent on a global level, everyday life rapidly follows in this trajectory. Take the life of a single commodity, a central fixture in the day-to-day. Once an item mass produced in factories located in fixed geographical location, with a reciprocal demand generated through advertising campaigns, the commodity can now come into existence through data accumulation and statistical analysis of consumer trends, followed by actualized production in out-sourced factories overseas. This is followed by a geographical relocation through transport chains, ranging from cargo ships and airlines on the intercontinental level to airlines and trucking lines on the continental and national levels, before reaching the territorial level of the cycle. There, the results will feedback again into the databanks of the analysts, and the process begins anew. Or the order chain might begin with the intimate, a whim or unique need to be filled that triggers a very specified process of ordering.

We need not fall back onto the life cycle of the commodity to grasp the relationship between the five scales. There exists within them a map of contemporary subjectivity: the personal relations and events that the individual goes through, the localized space in which these play out, the nation-state that aggregates series of localizations, the specific others and their own intimate and national levels that we relate ourselves to. Commodity chains, coupled with the conditions of labor and the regimes of monetary accumulation that accompany them, no doubt play a major facet in this subjectivity, as does the constant monitoring and analyzing of individual trends and patterns. So do economic crises, which reverberate across the five scales rapidly: a downturn in the Eurozone will impact the stock market in the US and vice-versa; consumer confidence will fall across the regions, with potential negative impact on the markets and job stability on the territorial level. As such, we can say that the five scales are interlocked into a continuum, a vital linkage between the individual, the local, and the universal.


A defining characteristic of the continuum is that it is in a perpetual state of flux, shifting and changing depending on a myriad of factors and substances. In previous eras, change was perceived as occurring in a linear fashion of cause and effect – A led to B which led to C, so on and so-forth. In philosophy, this manifested itself through Hegel’s theory of the dialectic, which posited a series of conflicts and resolutions. A thesis was confronted in the antithesis, which resolved itself into a synthesis; this synthesis would go on to become the new thesis with a reciprocal antithesis appearing in opposition. Yet on the plane of the continuum, what use do we have for such reductionist logic? It is no mistake that Hegel’s dialectic has always been anchored to stateforms, with the philosophy serving initially as propaganda for the Prussian state. Later it would be appropriated by Marxist-Leninist currents and used as justification for the nationalist bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, and later still would resurface in the neoconservative fantasies of Francis Fukuyama with his declaration that history had formally ended with the advent of transnational social market democracy. But the stateform has been radically altered and subdued in the epoch of globalization, with the withering of borders under commodity, monetary, and migratory flows and the establishment of an informal governance network in the form of the global civil society. There is little space for traditional notions of causality; on the continuum, we can glimpse a profound multiplicity of circulations, perpetual network formations and infinite possibilities, all moving together in patterns of unison and contradiction, coalescence and breakdown.

The easiest way to illustrate this transformation is to refer to the previous state affairs as existing in a ‘fixed space,’ where today’s fivefold existence has produced a space in which things have become unfixed, ‘free floating.’ Beginning with the unfixing of the US dollar from the gold standard under President Nixon, to the subsequent rounds of market deregulation and the rise of computer science, economics were suddenly free to circulate the globe in ways that were previously unimaginable. This transition to a free-floating state was also reflected in the avenues of critical theory, which most frequently aims itself against capitalism and its effects on those who toil underneath it. The French theorist Jean Baudrillard took note of this in his twin works Symbolic Exchange and Death and Forget Foucault, arguing that the floating nature of theory itself meant that any theory could be plucked from the ether and placed towards, each interchangeable on multiple levels – they “serve as signs for one another.”2 In fact, these floating theories that Baudrillard is referencing – those of Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard and, though he cares not to confess it, his own – belong to the post-structuralist school of philosophy, which makes its enemy the very Hegelian dialectic, unable as it is to exist in the continuum. This flexible nature, however, extends beyond the confines of critical philosophy, straight into the domains of conscious existence. As Christian Marazzi puts it:

Some have described our current situation as a “crisis of meaning” – incapacity to elaborate and propose to all members of society a system of references… The opposite is true: we live in a genuine “fair of meanings” where each of us can “freely” appropriate the images, symbols and myths that s/he prefers. What we lack is a “symbolic order” capable of structuring and unifying the scattered fragments of our lives.3

The “symbolic order” referred to above is a psychoanalytic term deployed by Jacques Lacan to refer describe to structures that can be found underlying life and identity, the systems of language and law, the state’s governing apparatuses and all the architectures that it entails, down to the school, the church, the political party and the factory. We find in this order the stuff of traditional territories before the breakdown of their barriers, producing the common perception of the “I”. If the symbolic order is broken open into the five scales of experience, then no concrete notion of the subjectivity can be grasped.

Arthur Rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud

We should speak here briefly of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who sought a higher form of his art through a remapping of his subjectivity – a process that required a “long, prodigious, and rational disordering of the senses.”4 His vagabond journey removed him far from the intimate, territorial, and national levels of experience – nomadism, states of delirium produced by hashish and absinthe, a flight from his time’s conservative approach to the body through decadent living and the alterations of physical appearance. In short, his project of the “disordering of the senses” was itself a war on the symbolic order that he felt had been imposed upon him by the societies of the late 1800s, and it led him to finally proclaim that “I is someone else.” While the measures he took to reach this state differed wildly in methodology, this fracture and recomposition of his nature provides a useful analogue to contemporary life, which too is unmoored from the symbolic order. Finding ourselves adrift, both mentality and physically, on the global continuum, are we all not becoming others, new identities that no longer refer back to the grounds on which they first sprung?

Rejecting the Continuum


Guy Debord’s psychogeographical map of Paris

Rimbaud’s quest for a sort of liberatory schizophrenia provided a blueprint for a distinctive lineage of avant-garde countercultures that followed in his wake. The participants of the Dada movement, Hans Arp in particular, championed his poetry, while their successors, the Surrealists, produced a kind of urban nomadism that sought to overturn the overcodes of everyday city living. This can be traced through to the Situationists, with their theoretical constructs of “unitary urbanism,” “psychogeography,” and the constructions of “situations” – autonomous zones that broke open the continuity of control that permeated both capitalism and Marxist-Leninist societies. Looked at in a genealogical whole, the connecting thread (beyond momentary overlaps from each movement to the next) is a disdain for the regimented rationality that resulted from the symbolic order. Arp had expressed as his goal the undoing of “the reasonable deceptions of man” in order to “recover the natural and unreasonable order,”5 while the Situationist’s Raoul Vaneigem, author of the appropriately titled The Revolution of Everyday Life, spoke in distinctively Rimbaudian terms: “The eruption of lived pleasure is such that in losing myself I find myself; forgetting that I exist, I realize myself.”6 If I can be allowed the usefulness of simplistic reduction, the bulk of the European modernist counterculture, much like the Beatniks and hippies in America, were searching beyond the traditional symbolic order, grasping for a new subjectivity the in continuum, something that capitalism will deliver with its usual price tags in a matter of years.

However, there were multiple strands of thought weaving through modernism; much of what characterizes the time period is the rigid authoritarianism of Mussolini’s Italy, the Stalinism USSR, and the technocracy of America’s New Deal, and this was replicated in aesthetics with things like Le Corbusier’s disciplinary architecture and the futurist’s fixation on hierarchy and order. Few things, however, capture the opposition to modernist counterculture than the pulp horror writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Much of Lovecraft’s writing show an underlying tension between enlightened civilization and the outside, where chaotic forces are to be found that continually threaten to undermine it; ‘forbidden knowledge’ of these forces is a perpetual theme in his works, as well as cautionary warnings against seeking it out.

The protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories are most frequently educated men, scholars in various disciplines, who come into contact with the outside and eventually learn unknowable secrets on a cosmic scale. Theorists such as Graham Harman and Benjamin Noys have conceivably shown that these horrors, which are depicted as abstract monstrosities existing in realms of non-Euclidean geometry and architecture, are in fact exaggerated send-ups of countercultural modernist aesthetics. Coupled with the fact that this domain exists in the cosmic continuum, Lovecraft’s entire oeuvre becomes a defense of traditionalist categories of reference, a plea to stay within the boundaries of the symbolic order and scales of experience. And what becomes of his poor scholars, who arrogantly push their way into this otherness? They are simply driven mad, their very subjectivities crumbled away.


Jean Metzinger’s “La Femme au Cheval” – an example of the modernist aesthetic that Lovecraft adopted into his stories of cosmological horror

Lovecraft’s own politics are symptomatic of the times in which he lived – much has been made of his racism and unrelenting defense of isolationist ethnicity, even as cultural trends were moving away from this hardline viewpoints. Not so much has been made though of the fact that he was a New Deal Democrat and a strong supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. While this may seem to run counter to the typical conservative imagery of the New Deal as an softer, more American articulation of socialism, it is prudent to consider that socialist revolution is precisely what Roosevelt sought to undermine – even if doing meant curbing the destructive excesses of capitalist order.7 If both anti-capitalism and unmitigated capitalism are pushed into positions as the enemies of the statehood’s fabric, then Mark Fisher’s own take on Lovecraft is worthy of mention:

Lovecraft’s fictions also enjoy a special relationship to capitalism. Lovecraft, in fact, may be the great poet of capital – not because he explicitly deals with capital in his texts… but because he provides a heightened imagery equal to capital’s protoplasmic mutability. Capitalist power can be understood as ‘tentacular’ rather than pyramidal… It is not accidental that, in their characterization of capitalism, Deleuze and Guattari’s language coincides with that of Lovecraft: in Anti-Oedipus they describe Capital as a Thing without any fixed or final form, but which reveals the previously occulted forms of preceding social systems by incarnating what they had abominated. ‘If capitalism is the universal truth, it is so in the sense that makes the capitalism the negative of all social formations, it is the thing, the unnamable, the generalized decoding of all flows that reveals a contrario the secret of these formations.’8

Thus it could be argued that Lovecraft, in certain ways, foreshadowed Baudrillard’s own critique of critical theory in that capitalism and anti-capitalism were moving towards a similar position, with the pivotal crossing in the 1970s when capitalism became floating and global. Since then, multiculturalism and feminism have been found to be a rich market to be tapped, fair trade and organic quickly became key branding concepts, and corporate social awareness is a requisite for any postmodern business model. The traditional ‘fat cats’ of business have been replaced with liberal entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs; with tales of their youthful LSD experiments abound (Lovecraftian ‘forbidden secrets’ in the eyes of the state if there has ever been one!), their rhetoric of a global and digital ‘frictionless’ capitalism recalls so very much of Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘smooth space’ – the plane where desires and creativity circulate and flow freely, away from dominant state logic and dialectic.9

But what of the subjectivity, with its bedrock left shaken by these changes? When Rimbaud, Arp, Vaneigem all spoke of disorientation and moving the unpredictable and the chaotic against the regimented and the disciplined, of finding new methods of being and experiencing life, surely they weren’t advocating a fluid capitalism that extends to every corner of the globe and beneath every social strata? Is the central point of being able to exist in the five scales of experience and moving beyond the symbolic order simply to have the ability to dress down for jobs at start-ups, drink ‘coffee with a conscience,’ or thumb through fashion magazines with photographs modeled on French New Wave cinema? They tell us that all these things allow us to express our individuality in ways we were never able to before, and while this may be true, why is there is still so much disillusionment? The fact is that even though we have a world of pleasures at our disposal, things are still in the same state of affairs spoken of by Guy Debord, the self-styled leader of the Situationists. “My dears,” one of his films beseeches us to understand, “adventure is dead.”10

While capitalism no doubt recuperated the demands of modernist counterculture into its own internal logic and shifted its methodology for surplus value extraction accordingly, its basic mechanics remained in place, and where even augmented further with new means of exploitation and entrapment. To begin with, the integration of the global in the labor production process produces on one hand the whole sweatshop network, archaic throwbacks to capitalism as it was prior to the Fordist-Keynesian class compact that allowed the middle class to flourish, and on the side of the developed nations, the nature of labor tends towards the precarious. Lean production models means that corporations will employ increasingly fewer numbers of people; the jobs cut usually comes from the working class that would manage the machinery of production itself. The focus shifts almost entirely from the actual production of goods to analyst positions, financial strategists, marketing executives, and managerial positions – specialized spots in the corporate hierarchy that most frequently require extensive university education before they are entered. Outside of this realm is the service sector, generally made up of low-paying or temporary jobs; because the flexible and amorphous nature of this field, there usually is no labor union through which to bargain with the management for higher wages.

And so the same bifurcations of society that persisted in modernity continues well on into the neoliberal revolution. To compound matters, both the schooling required for the higher levels of the job market and the inherent instability in the lower levels has led to a universalization of debt, moving it to the forefront of the global stage. As we all know, thanks to the ever-present screaming of the electronic media platforms, there is a profound crisis of debt – personal debt, corporate debt, banking debt, and national debt. To become interdependent on the five scales through global neoliberalism has come at the ever increasing cost of debt, and with it a destruction of the traditional role of the public sphere. In the Eurozone and in the developing world, countries are forced into the position of extreme austerity measures in exchange for bailouts from transnational institutions like the International Monetary Fund. In the wake of austerity, there is a momentary economic rebound – and downturn. Job availability shrinks further, but for many students drowning in debt, it doesn’t matter. Their future has been sold off. So much for Bill Gates’ frictionless capitalism!

(…to be continued in Part 2)

1These five scales of experience were developed by critical theorist Brian Holmes and the 16 Beaver Group’s “Continental Drift” movement. See Brian Holmes “Recapturing Subversion: Twenty Twisted Rules of the Culture Game” Escape the Overcode

2Jean Baudrillard Symbolic Exchange and Death, Sage, 1993, pg. 44

3Christian Marazzi Capital and Affects: The Politics of the Language Economy Semiotext(e), 2011, pg. 72

4Arthur Rimbaud, quoted in Sadie Plant The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age Routledge, 1992 pg. 42

5Ibid., pg. 45

6Raoul Vaneigem The Revolution of Everyday Life reprint Rebel Press, 2006, pg. 195

7See, for example, Cass Sunstein The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever Basic Books, 2006

8Mark Fisher “Lovecraft and the Weird, Part II” K-Punk, May 25th, 2007

9See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pgs. 478-482

10Plant, pg. 10

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