dead zones of modernity

What do we talk about when we talk about getting organized? We talk about hardware. The discourse of personal virtues, being fastidious or having it together, is often supplanted by a three word magic formula “get an iPhone.” If we miss an appointment, it’s because Outlook sucks, and we really should switch over to Gmail. Better yet, we were in a dead zone. Not because we are negligent.

While this may seem like a subtle, marketing driven shift in the lexicon, it could also indicate a shift in how we view the world—for better or for worse. The beginning of the last century triumphantly proclaimed the victory of function over substance. Our iPhone speech tic says “not so fast.”

A key expositor of the increasing trend towards abstraction was Georg Simmel. In his Philosophy of Money, a book which I hope to discuss further, he gives us the lineaments of a common neokantian trope of the turn of the century—one that people like Cassirer would be quick to sign on to. Since Simmel uses lots of social analogies and great examples, we will use his version of the substance function dichotomy.

Simmel begins with a simple question that still confuses the hell out of everyone. Does money need to have intrinsic value? Logically, he says, we might say yes. In order to measure something, the measuring stick would seem to need to have its qualities. “A measure of length has to be long, a measure of weight has to be heavy,”—right?

Actually, no. For example, we can measure the force of a wind by the fact that it breaks a branch of a certain thickness. Another example is drawn from psychology. There, we can measure certain moods by their physical correlates. Yet, there is no mechanism (known to Simmel) where these chemicals actually produce affective states. Like a true Kantian, he says Yes to human freedom and Yes to science, and Yes to their correlation, but they are strictly incommensurable. So things of different qualities can measure each other. Therefore money doesn’t need to have intrinsic value.

Why did money start out with intrinsic value if it’s purely indexical? Historically, people have used things like gold or cows as money, but why? “Exchange was at first necessarily exchange in kind” because why would I give you something valuable, like my cow, for something worthless, like a piece of paper?

Simmel answers this with a historical account of the move from substance to function. We need to get to the idea of money from the substance of valuable things. It’s a historical process of continued abstraction. Here’s the denouement.

In the development that I have outlined, money tends towards a point at which, as a pure symbol, it is completely absorbed by its exchange and measuring functions. There are many parallels in the history of thought. Our original, untutored interest in phenomena usually comprehends them as undifferentiated wholes. They confront us as a unity of form and content, and our valuations are bound to the form because it is the form of this specific content, to the content because it is the content of this specific form. In higher stages of development these elements are separated and the function as pure form is appreciated in specific ways. The diverse contents of these forms are often treated as irrelevant. Thus, for instance, we appreciate the religious mood while being indifferent to the dogmatic content. We consider it valuable that this elevation, striving and appeasement of the soul, which is the universal element in the many different historical creeds, should exist.

People take a long time to get comfortable with the disaggregation of abstract ideas from material objects. Modernity just turns out to be the story of how we learn to filter out the abstract ideas from the fetishistic shiny totems like gold, silver, or the Catholic Church. Simmel gives lots of examples of the halfway steps we take to learn that the religious feeling can substitute for the dogma and that pixels on a screen can be just as good as gold.

If modernity revolves around continued abstraction, than we would expect to live in a slightly different world than we currently inhabit. For one thing, the dogma of various religious sects turns out to matter a whole lot. More prosaically, when we discuss things which should be abstract functions, we return incessantly to substances like the iPad.

We could conceive a few answers to this question. A pessimist would point to the stillborn nature of modernity or the sterile optimistic gesturing of neokantians toward a century filled with gas chambers, nuclear bombing and bad television. Maybe there was some misbegotten optimism.

Since I began with a very small question, maybe we can suggest some smaller scale answers. One answer might have to do with competence. Sociological Phenomenologists like Schutz point to the fact that we don’t ask how a phone works in order to use a phone. At some point, all modern abstraction blends into the life world we take for granted. We assume right away that money works, not because we recapitulated all of modernity and learned to trust numbers on a screen. Rather, we were born into a world where money=function and we just assume that this is the background noise of reality. We don’t become modern every single day. We are born this way.

If this is the case, we might take some things for granted, like money. But we might still need substances in other areas of life. The analogical reasoning like “I only need the idea of money to be money, so I only need some idea of organization to be organized” is a non-starter. After all, I never decided that I only need the idea of money; it just worked out that way. If I live in a house with an induction stove but no central A/C, I do not extrapolate from one to the other.

Another answer might have to do with agency. Simply put, even if we all really know that being organized hinges on the abstract function of having one’s shit together, when we fail at this, we can wink and nod at the iPhone and its crappy reception rather than taking the blame. The agency model generally undermines the increasing move towards abstraction with the countervailing theory that all those totemic items serve to shift blame, even if ever so slightly, from us to the craps all around us.

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