Apologies for the delay in posting, popOp has been conducting ethnographic research in the Yucatan peninsula, near the ancient ruins of the Mayan city Chichén Itzá.
The central concern, thus far, for this column has been to palpate the contours of contemporary capitalist social life by examining ways in which identity is appropriated, reappropriated, and commodified. We’ve seen several instances this self-commodification at work, such as with Lil’ Wayne (rapper) and Sasha Grey (porn star). In keeping with the archaeological theme above, we’ve also considered that we develop our sense of ourselves something like a sedimentary layering-on of responses to traumatic events (remember the True Companion Robot?)
Prior to the 14th century social stratification in Europe was of three forms: those who worked (the peasants), those who prayed (the clergy), and those who fought (the aristocracy). And this was all-good. For some reason I had this other image of the peasants as basically struggling for millenia just wishing they could shrug off the yoke of repression, getting burninated on by Trogdor. Now I have to revisit the image of the peasant as portrayed in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.
All three categories (peasants, clergy, and aristocracy) were of a Great Chain of Being which was an attempt to understand how all the universe was, in essence, gradations of God. At the bottom of this ladder was the earth itself, which had only the property of existence, in the center was humanity (between the angels and the animals), and at the top was God. All of reality fit within a gradation of godliness.
What’s nice about this mode of representation is that it helps us answer the question, Master Shake begs of us: Where you at? This would become undone, however, during the vicious cycle of famine, warfare, and plague that obliterated most of Western Europe. In the wake of lived apocalypse, people began seeking positive expression of God’s existence, this pursuit of positive knowledge lead to the era now called the Enlightenment.
It was during this era, according to Foucault, that the West began its long infatuation with the figure of the Sovereign. The sovereign is the individual that can make decisions, the Decider, if you will. It’s the Sovereign that is always assumed when formulating the social contract. The Sovereign is the agent capable of existing and determining what is ethical.
But, as Foucault lamented, what we need today is a political philosophy that doesn’t presuppose this mode of agency, “We need to cut off the King’s head…” he once stated. In the feudal era, power functioned through symbolic acts (swearing loyalty, paying taxes, etc.) but the modern era was born from the awareness that there is a “population.”
In part, as this exploration of Mexico has shown, who I am is deeply integrated into where I am. So, too, the modern era sought to not only map the entire globe, but to measure the wealth of the State not only in terms of area, but also the volume within its borders: the size of its populace, the number of resources, the sum total of its economic activity, and so on. Power would no longer be limited to direct repression by authorities, but the real test of power would be to get the populations to police themselves – to operate within the acceptable limits of what has been deemed permissible.
This is why the revolutionary avant-garde was forever finding itself revolting (playing the phrase a little there) – what is permissible is easily transcribed into what is au courant (hip). Thus was born the tyranny of cool.