Human life as we once knew it is gone, replaced by the ritual of endless purchasing. This is existence in what used to be called “the belly of the beast.” Our role in life has become to nourish capitalism by being at its disposal, by giving of ourselves. Such giving frequently entails self-mutilation: the debt, credit card and otherwise, that bludgeons to death the dreams of many individuals and families.
This quasi-religious self-sacrifice replicates in another form: the Dark Ages practice employed by fanatical monks and other flagellants who lashed themselves with whips made from copper wires, thereby ripping their flesh and bleeding until they descended into a state of religious hysteria. The more we give of ourselves in this way, the thinner and more weightless we become. Meanwhile, the god whom Allen Ginsberg called Moloch grows more obese day after day, its belly is filled with:
Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!…
Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!
What capitalism wants from us, of course, isn’t merely self-sacrifice, it’s surrender. Hunger for life is viewed negatively by the status quo because it nourishes the self, making it stronger and more alert and, therefore, better prepared to assert itself. The fact that such an empowered self is more there (possesses more of a presence) than its undersized counterpart makes the healthier self unacceptable to the powers that be. This is because there-ness is no longer an option in our national life. Only non-there-ness is. If you’re not a political anorexic, you’re on the wrong side.
Wherever we look, we see it. Invisibility, or at least as much of it as possible, is the individual’s goal. It’s the new real. Fashion reveals this as well as anything. It does so by disseminating an ideal of beauty that fetishizes the body’s anorexic wilting away. Not the body’s presence but its fade to disappearance is the source of its allure. The ultimate fashion model hovers fragilely on the brink of absence in order not to distract from the only thing which counts in capitalism: the commodity to be sold — e.g., the boutique bomber jacket, the shirt, the pantsuit, the earrings, the shawl, the stilettos, the iPhone, the Ferrari, and, possibly most of all, the political passivity intrinsic to spending your life acquiring things in order to prove to others and ourselves that we’ve discovered in these things something more useful than Socrates’ goal of knowing thyself or Emma Goldman’s warning, “The most unpardonable sin in society is independence of thought.”
What is true on the fashion runway is also true in politics. Just as the best model is one thin enough to fade into non-presence, so our democracy, supposedly ruled “by and for the people,” has thinned down so much that “the people” can’t even be seen (except as stage props), let alone get their hands on democracy except in token ways. No matter how often we the people are praised rhetorically by politicians, we aren’t allowed as a group to get in the way of the capitalist system’s freedom to do whatever it wants in order to sustain commodity worship and guarantee capital’s right to permanent rule. If the military-industrial complex needs another war in order to pump out more profits, then so be it. We have no say in the matter. The identity theft built into society’s structure makes sure of this. It’s stripped us of our “weight” — our creativity, our willingness to take political risks, our capacity to choose action over posturing. After this forced weight loss, what’s left of us is a mess. Too philosophically and psychologically anemic to successfully challenge our leaders’ decisions, we, for all practical purposes, disappear.
As a reward for our passivity, we’re permitted a certain range of freedom — as long as “a certain range” is defined as “varieties of buying” and doesn’t include behavior that might result in the population’s attainment of greater political power.
So, it continues, the only good citizen is the absent citizen. Which is to say, a citizen who has dieted him or herself into a state of political anorexia — i.e., that level of mental weightlessness necessary for guaranteeing a person’s permanent self-exclusion from the machinery of power.
Our flesh no longer exists in the way it once did. A new evolutionary stage has arrived.
In this new stage, the flesh isn’t merely what it seems to be: flesh, pure and simple. Instead, it’s a hybrid. It’s what exists after the mind oversees its passage through the sieve of mass culture.
After this passage, what the flesh is now are the poses it adopts from studying movies, rappers, punk rockers, fashionistas of all kinds, reality TV stars, football hunks, whomever. It’s also what it wears, skinny jeans or loose-fitting chinos, short skirt or spandex, Hawaiian shirt or muscle tank top, pierced bellybutton, dope hiking boots, burgundy eyeliner. Here we come, marching, strolling, demon-eyed, innocent as Johnny Appleseed. Everybody’s snapping pics with their phones, selfies and shots of others (friends, strangers, the maimed, the hilarious, the so-called idiotic). The flesh’s pictures are everywhere. In movie ads, cosmetic ads, suppository ads, Viagra ads. This is the wave of the already-here but still-coming future. The actual flesh’s replacement by televised, printed, digitalized and Photoshopped images of it produces the ultimate self-bifurcation.
Increasingly cut off from any unmediated life of its own, the flesh now exists mostly as a natural resource for those (including ourselves) who need it for a project; to photograph it, dress it up, pose it in a certain way, put it on a diet, commodify/objectify it in any style ranging from traditional commodification to the latest avant-garde objectification.
All these stylings/makeovers, although advertised as a form of liberation for the flesh (a “freeing” of your flesh so you can be what you want to be), are in fact not that. Instead, they are part of the process of distancing ourselves from the flesh by always doing something to it rather than simply being it.
When we are it, we feel what the flesh feels, the pain, the joy, the satisfaction, the terror, the disgust, the hints of hope, a sense of irreparable loss, whatever.
When we objectify it, it is a mannequin, emotionless, a thing that uses up a certain amount of space. As such we can do what we want with it: decorate it, pull it apart, vent our frustrations on it, starve it, practice surgical cuts on it, put it to whatever use we like. It isn’t a person. It is separate from our personhood and we own it.
In fact, we own all the world’s flesh.
We live, after all, in the American Empire, and the Empire owns everything. As the Empire’s citizens, we own everything it owns. Except for one thing: ourselves.
The flesh is both here and not here. Increasingly, it is more an object that we do things to — e.g., bulk it up, change its hair color, mass-kill it from a hotel window on the 32nd floor, view in a porno flick — than a presence in its own right (i.e., self-contained, a force to be reckoned with). In this sense, it is a growing absence, each day losing more of its self-determination and becoming more a thing lost than something that exists fully, on its own, in the here and now. Given this, the proper attitude to have toward the flesh is one of nostalgia.
Of course, the flesh hasn’t really disappeared. What has disappeared is what it once was, a meat-and-bones reality, a site of pleasure and injury. Now, however, it’s not so valuable in itself as it is in its in its role as a starting-off point for endless makeovers.
These makeover options are arrayed before the consumer everywhere: online, in big box stores, in niche markets and so on. Today, it is in these places, not at birth, that the flesh starts its trek toward maturation. It does this by offering itself up as a sacrifice to be used as they see fit by the fashion industry, the gym industry, the addiction-cure industry, the diet industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the education industry, etc. Each body in the nation reaches its fullest potential only when it becomes a testing site to be used by these industries as they explore more and better ways to establish themselves as indispensable to capitalism’s endless reproduction.
In the end, the flesh, the target of all this competition for its attention, has less of a life on its own than it does as the object of advertisers’ opinions about what can be done to improve it or to reconstruct it. Only to the extent that the flesh can transcend or reconstitute itself can it be said to be truly alive.
This last fact — about aliveness — represents the culmination of a process. This process pertains to the visualization and digitalization of everything and the consequent disappearance of everything behind a wall of signification.
A televised or computerized image, discussion, commentary, conjecture, etc., becomes the thing it meditates on, depicts or interprets. This happens by virtue of the fact that the thing itself (the real flesh behind the televised or computerized image, discussion, commentary, conjecture, etc.) has disappeared into the discussion or into the image of it presented on the computer or TV screen.
In the same way, an anorexic model (her/his flesh and blood presence) disappears into the fashions she or he displays for the public.
In each instance the thing (the flesh) now no longer exists except in other people’s meditations on it; it has become those other people’s meditations. The ultimate anorexic, it (the thing) has lost so much weight it’s no longer physically there except as an idea in someone else’s mind or in a series of binary codings inside computers.
This is the final victory of absence over there-ness, of the anorexic ideal over the idea of being fully human (i.e., “bulging with existence,” “fat with life”). The self has been successfully starved to the point of such a radical thinness that it can no longer stand up to a blade of grass, let alone make itself felt by the powers that be.
*Click here to read “Identity Theft & the Body’s Disappearance, Part 1” by Robert Bohm