(1) What does the title of your book, ‘Non-Stop Inertia’, refer to?
It represents a perpetual sort of crisis that people seem to be in, in everyday life. There’s this sense of always having to look for the next thing, having to sort everything out – this sort of endless circulating, networking, competing, and always passing through somewhere on the way to somewhere else. It’s sort of a vicious circle. But this is presented as ‘how it is’ or a self-imposed situation – that’s quite important, I think.
The title draws attention to the contradiction in that – in that we’re in a loop of anxiety and we’re not really getting anywhere. There’s a sort of frenetic activity and we’re not really achieving
anything at all. And there’s this sense of freedom all the time, but is it really freedom? Has this sort of mobility and availability and stuff – has it actually made us free in the way that we’re told that it has?
And I suppose I’m thinking as well, in the title, that there’s the implication that if we were to stop in some way, we could see the scenery clearly and see each other clearly, and that the scenery wouldn’t be blurred. We might be able to see an exit, or a way of improving things.
(2)In the book you seem to suggest that our society of non-stop inertia is reflected in 24 hours news channels.
24 hour news is extraordinary in that it sort of has to fill every possible space, and there’s a sense that things aren’t given time to develop. An event is reported on as it’s happening or even before it’s happening. And there’s this sense that there isn’t really room for any sort of critical space. It’s also in this sort of strange, virtual area. A lot of the stuff is presented in some of these graphics and some of these places which don’t really exist. And again we’re always passing through on this sort of narrative, and there’s this sense of ‘Is it really getting anywhere?’ - a sort of futility, I suppose. Yes, I think there is this sort of common thing there for someone to develop further.
(3) Why have people accepted a society of non-stop inertia? Why aren’t they resisting it?
It’s clear that certain factors have been put together to stop people resisting it. You sort of feel helpless, that you can’t resist, that you have to go along, that you have to go with the flow. There’s a lot behind that. As an individual – in the face of the dismantling of unions, insecurity, the wage gap, etc. – you’ve got few resources to draw on. I think that all contributes to it. Now, obviously, with mobile devices and stuff like that people are encouraged to exist in their own little bubble and connections are very difficult to establish. But that push towards individualisation and insecurity has a lot to do with it.
(4) Towards the end of the first chapter, you refer to Marcuse’s book ‘One-Dimensional Man’. Do you agree with his thesis that we’re living in a one-dimensional society?
Marcuse’s book was written, I think, in the early 60s. I was reading it at the same time I was beginning to formulate some of the ideas in ‘Non-stop Inertia’ and I just thought, ‘God, we’re in this now!’
Party politics has a lot to do with what might be perceived as a one-dimensional society. I think there’s a lot to say about the sort of almost interchangeability of the way that Labour and the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are all basically on the same page - that lack of an alternative. Mark Fisher talks about ‘capitalist realism’ – that sense that there’s only one way to go.
I’ve been thinking lately that it’s quite useful to think of the Labour party as actually being part of the Coalition. And that feeds into this idea of our society being one-dimensional. It’s another way of thinking they’re performing an act of being the opposition, but in fact they’re really not proposing to undo anything that’s been done. And they’d quite happily come in and use it in the same way that New Labour used Thatcherism as a sort of foundation for the next stage.
(5) In order to demonstrate your argument that we’re living in a society of non-stop inertia, you explore the contemporary workplace and its related settings and introduce the reader to the term ‘precarity’. Could you tell us what this term means?
My understanding of ‘precarity’ is that it came out of the transition to post-Fordist ways of working – out of the period of Fordism and stability. People were sold an idea that they were being unchained from industry and having a boring job for life, and that they would be endlessly mobile, aspiring characters. But it seems to me that the price for all of that is a constant nagging insecurity. The idea of precarity is this sort of machinery of anxiety. It’s a sort of a technology in the workplace and in culture, which has been introduced and extended, and allows us to keep on functioning.
That’s not to say that we should be striving to return to how it was before - we couldn’t anyway because the world’s changed. But we have to break free from this new form of imprisonment or subjugation that precarity represents. We have to not believe the myths that we are these free subjects anymore. If we’re moving towards something else, maybe it would be autonomy rather than precarity.
So, precarity is insecurity and being in a precarious economic state, and, in practical terms, things like agency work, endlessly re-applying for jobs and stuff like that. And all of that is being sold as a positive thing by people who are basically using it as a way of cutting down on labour costs. . . .
(12) In the second section of the book you argue that almost all workplaces now resemble ‘non-places’. What exactly do you mean by this?
Non-places is a term I cam across in a book by the anthropologist Mark Augé. He was talking about transitional places, in particular places like airports, supermarkets, and motorways, etc. These, I suppose, are part of the architecture of neoliberal capitalism, in that they seem frictionless although, of course, they aren’t. People with long commutes to work, for example, are always coming across glitches.
We’re spending more and more time in ‘non-places’. People are commuting for longer and longer times. What kind of time is that? It’s sort of non-time, in a way. It’s time in a non-place. What can you actually do? Who are you with? You’re not with your colleagues or with your friends. You’re on your own with passengers who are not talking to each other. Non-places are places of solitude and also places where your identity is suspended.
Another aspect of non-places is amnesia. They kind of resist remembering. That possibly applies to a lot of work now. You finish one assignment and then you erase it and go on to the next one.
(13) Would you say the purpose of having workplaces resemble non-places is to disempower people by making them feel that they can’t get a grip on the world around them?
Yes. As I said before, we can’t go back to a Fordist world, but it has to be born in mind that the vast majority of people aren’t looking for a new, dynamic challenge every month or something. Most people want stability. They want security and a decent standard of living, and time to look after their kids, and to know that they can live somewhere and pay all of their bills. You’ve got to have a certain kind of rootedness for that.
I was invited to write about my work, over a year ago. I was asked on July 13, 2012, 3:44 AM, for a thousand words. I froze up. Asking me to write about my work seemed overwhelming, let alone, intimidating. I couldn’t do it. A few attempts led nowhere. Probably 150 words, then nothing. Yes, I’ve done artist’s statements, technical articles, syllabi and course descriptions, but this essay seemed impossible. I wasn’t stymied so much about the length, as by the content. What could words reveal that my photographs didn’t? A few months ago, reading the chapter on “Writing” from Why People Photograph by Robert Adams, I felt exonerated:
“The frequency with which photographers are called upon to talk about their pictures is possibly related to the apparent straightforwardness of their work. Photographers look like they must record what confronts them – as is. Shouldn’t they be expected to compensate for this woodenness by telling us what escaped outside the frame and by explaining why they chose their subject? The assumption is wrong, of course, but an audience that knows better is small, certainly smaller than for painting. Photographers envy painters because they are usually allowed to get by with gnomic utterances or even silence, something permitted them perhaps because they seem to address their audience more subjectively, leaving it more certain about what the artist intended.”
Nonetheless, here I am, giving it another try. I’d like to use this opportunity, to answer a question I’m frequently asked: “What do you like to photograph?” Lately, I seem to be conflicted on this point, even posing the question to my own psyche, what DO I like to photograph? How can I answer “everything.” How do I describe what LIGHT means to me, falling on faces, buildings, land and urbanscapes, or, just in its own state of being? Complicating this desire to document light, is my love of photographing without light, seeing how close I can get to the edge of darkness. As I mature, this exercise becomes even more urgent, passing through my lens, what I see in my heart. Perhaps, it is also my changing eyesight, my points of focus seem insignificant. So, this essay, is an attempt to record, in a thousand words, my evolution from “subjects” to “moments” in my photography. Currently, that’s how I answer the question, “I like to shoot moments.”
Quantified Self (QS) is a growing global movement selling a new form of wisdom, encapsulated in the slogan “self-knowledge through numbers”. Rooted in the American tech scene, it encourages people to monitor all aspects of their physical, emotional, cognitive, social, domestic and working lives. The wearable cameras that enable you to broadcast your life minute by minute; the Nano-sensors that can be installed in any region of the body to track vital functions from blood pressure to cholesterol intake, the voice recorders that pick up the sound of your sleeping self or your baby’s babble—together, these devices can provide you with the means to regain control over your fugitive life.
This vision has traction at a time when our daily lives, as the Snowden leaks have revealed, are being lived in the shadow of state agencies, private corporations and terrorist networks—overwhelming [AW1] yet invisible forces that leave us feeling powerless to maintain boundaries around our private selves. In a world where our personal data appears vulnerable to intrusion and exploitation, a movement that effectively encourages you to become your own spy is bound to resonate. Surveillance technologies will put us back in the centre of the lives from which they’d displaced us. Our authoritative command of our physiological and behavioural “numbers” can assure us that after all, no one knows us better than we do.
Sifting through the talks, blog posts and articles daily uploaded by Quantified Self disciples, you soon become aware of an anxious insistence on numbers as a means rather than an end. All this data is meant to spur us to love ourselves better and run our lives more efficiently. And yet it’s hard not to hear, lurking in this promise of self-possession, the threat of numbers dispossessing us, of becoming a feverish addiction we can’t kick. Can even the most adept multi-tasker really live the life that they’re simultaneously tracking?
That question is addressed by the tech entrepreneur Charles Wang in a talk posted on the website of a California-based company called Quantified Self Labs which acts as a global hub for the community. Wang is the co-founder of Lumo BodyTech, a company that produces pioneering devices designed to enhance a user’s posture. Their lead product is the LUMOBack Posture Sensor, which triggers warning vibrations the moment you slouch. Given that poor posture is a key symptom of compulsive absorption in our laptops and phones, this product is not merely a physical corrective, says Wang, but the harbinger of a new “mindfulness”, a means of awakening the self from its high-tech slumber.
Our species is not going to last forever. One way or another, humanity will vanish from the Universe, but before it does, it might summon together sufficient computing power to emulate human experience, in all of its rich detail. Some philosophers and physicists have begun to wonder if we’re already there. Maybe we are in a computer simulation, and the reality we experience is just part of the program.
Modern computer technology is extremely sophisticated, and with the advent of quantum computing, it’s likely to become more so. With these more powerful machines, we’ll be able to perform large-scale simulations of more complex physical systems, including, possibly, complete living organisms, maybe even humans. But why stop there?
The idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. A pair of philosophers recently argued that if we accept the eventual complexity of computer hardware, it’s quite probable we’re already part of an ‘ancestor simulation’, a virtual recreation of humanity’s past. Meanwhile, a trio of nuclear physicists has proposed a way to test this hypothesis, based on the notion that every scientific programme makes simplifying assumptions. If we live in a simulation, the thinking goes, we might be able to use experiments to detect these assumptions.
However, both of these perspectives, logical and empirical, leave open the possibility that we could be living in a simulation without being able to tell the difference. Indeed, the results of the proposed simulation experiment could potentially be explained without us living in a simulated world. And so, the question remains: is there a way to know whether we live a simulated life or not?
A word for ethics. [Moral: ethics, morality] – The amoralism, with which Nietzsche dressed down the old untruths, has fallen prey to the verdict of history. With the dissolution of religion and its tangible philosophical secularizations, the restricting prohibitions have lost their certified essence, their substantiality. At one time however material production was still so underdeveloped, that there were grounds for announcing that there wasn’t enough for everyone. Whoever did not criticize political economy as such, was forced to cling to the limiting principle subsequently expressed as unrationalized appropriation at the cost of the weak. The objective prerequisites for this have changed. In view of the immediate possibility of abundance, this limitation must seem superfluous not just to social non-conformists, but even to the limited minds of bourgeois citizens. The implicit sense of the ethics of the rulers, that whoever wants to live has to grab what they can, has meanwhile turned into even more of a wretched lie than when it was the pulpit wisdom of the 19th century. If in Germany the upstanding citizens [Spiessbürger] have proven themselves to be blond beasts, then this is not on account of national peculiarities, but due to the fact that in the face of open plenitude, the blond beast itself, social robbery, has taken on the aspect of something backwoodsy, of the deluded philistine, and even of the “short-end-of-the-stick” attitude, against which the ruling ethics was invented. If Cesare Borgia came back to life today, he would resemble David Fredrich Strauss and he would be named Adolf Hitler. The preaching of amorality has become the task of the same Darwinists who Nietzsche loathed, and who convulsively proclaimed the barbaric struggle for existence as a maxim, precisely because it is no longer needed. The virtue of gentility has long since ceased to mean the taking what is better from others, but means instead becoming satiated with taking and really practicing the virtue of giving, something which occurs in Nietzsche solely intellectually. The ascetic ideals comprise a greater degree of resistance against the madness of the profit economy today than lavish living did sixty years ago against liberal repression. Amoralists may finally permit themselves to be as benevolent, kind, unegoistic and open-minded as Nietzsche already was at that time. As a guarantee of their unyielding resistance, they will still remain as lonely as in the days when he turned the mask of evil against the normal world, in order to teach the norm to fear its own wrongness.
I do not think that the fundamental desires of humans can change. The ruling or rich class seeks wealth, power, and honors, in antiquity just as in our day. All the misfortune of our actual civilization is in effect the exasperation of the desire for profit, in all the classes of society, for that matter, but especially the ruling class. Common mortals can have simpler desires: work, happiness at home, health. The invocations of the gods in antiquity were the same ones that are now made to the Virgin Mary. One asked the same things to soothsayers as we ask of our horoscopes. It is not a question of the epoch. But when Epicurus distinguished natural and necessary desires, natural desires that are not necessary, and desires that are neither natural nor necessary, he did not want to enumerate all legitimate desires and explain how they could be satisfied; he wanted to define a style of life, taking conclusions from his intuition, according to which the pleasure corresponds to the suppression of a suffering caused by the desire. There is an analogy with Buddhism, very much in fashion these days. To be happy one must thus maximally diminish the causes of suffering, that is, the desires. In this manner he wanted to heal the suffering of humans. He thus recommended renouncing desires that are very difficult to satisfy in order to attempt to be content with desires that can more easily be satisfied - that is, finally and simply, the desire to eat, to drink, and to clothe oneself. Under an apparently down-to-earth aspect, there is something extraordinary in Epicureanism: the recognition of the fact that there is only one true pleasure, the pleasure of existing, and that to experience it one merely has to satisfy the desires that are natural and necessary for the existence of the body. The Epicurean experience is extremely instructive; it invites us, like Stoicism, to a total reversal of values.
The Three Spiritual Exercises: Hadot on Ancient Philosophy as Way of Life
As I mentioned in my last post, Hadot spends much of the first book describing in great detail the ways in which philosophy was lived, taught, practiced, and written in the cultural and historical contexts in which it was produced in the Ancient world. And he argues that Ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, while clearly divided into schools, they shared certain fundamental premises together as all being recognized as philosophy. Despite the variety of Ancient groupings, including the four classical Ancient schools, including the Platonic Academy, the Aristotelian-Peripateic Lyceum, the Stoics, and the Epicureans, as well as the off-shoot ‘anti-schools’ of Skepticism and Cynicism, or the first schools of the Pythagoreans, along with the later development of Neo-Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic schools, there was, particularly by the end, much in common between these. All who practiced a “way of life” based on theories, rather than beliefs in a deity, were known in the Ancient world as philosophers, whether they wrote or taught that philosophy. Clearly this is different from the present, in which those who write and teach are called philosophers, while those who practice a life of disciplined reflection, not based on a deity, have no particular title at all.
In addition to the generalized asceticism that bound the varying approaches together, Hadot articulates three primary “exercises” that he feels united the different schools in one way or another, despite their doctrinal differences. These exercises are probably most closely related to Stoic and Epicurean practices, though many can be seen in Neo-platonism, that grand synthesis of Ancient schools, as well as in parts and various other ways in Platonic, Aristotelian, and other approaches.
The first exercise is the concentration on the present moment. As Hadot noted in his old age, this approach has much in common with Buddhism, and there is some reason to believe that Buddhism could have been a distant influence on Ancient Greek philosophy, particularly on that of Plotinus, if in an indirect form via contact with Persia, particularly after Alexander’s conquests. The Buddha, after all, was a rough contemporary of Socrates.
Concentration on the present, which gives the title to the book of interviews of Hadot’s entitled The Present Alone is our Happiness, helps us to see that it is the ‘thickness’ of the present, which is to say, the presence within it of the past and future, which are the cause of most of our suffering. Worries about the future, regrets about the past, these pulls yank us out of the present, divert our focus on where we are right here and now. But for Hadot, and many Ancient schools before him, the present has all we need to be happy. Hadot particularly emphasizes the way this played out in “Stoic virtue” and “Epicurean joy.” As will become clear, the second and third exersices flow naturally from this first, and in different flavors for Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism, in ways I’ll address now in turn.
I never took note of Wittgenstein’s lectures, but concentrated on trying to follow his train of thought. In retrospect I think it right to say that I understood next to nothing of what was going on, though I found Wittgenstein most impressive and stimulating.
Each conversation with Wittgenstein was like living through the day of judgement. It was terrible. Everything had constantly to be dug up anew, questioned and subjected to the tests of truthfulness. This concerned not only philosophy but the whole of life.
PB: I was thinking that, during the years of your philosophical training, writing became the object of a certain suspicion or mistrust. This attitude could take the form of the critique of ideology, of certain psychoanalytic precautions, of the practices of genealogy and deconstruction…in general, all these seemed to have in common a sort of critical distance towards the effects of writing itself, as well as an exploration of the blind spots that intervene in the very operation of reading, as a reader “translates” a text into a specific regime of visibility and intelligibility. Is there a connection between the risks of misinterpretation in the translation or the reception of a text—the gaps or margins that you just spoke of—and such a suspicion of the limitations, excesses, or dangers of writing?
JR: I don’t know if there was such mistrust and precaution towards the dangers of writing. One needs to remember that, on the contrary, there was a sort of faith, a somewhat materialist faith in the signifier. My youth coincided with this epoch of great faith in the materiality of the signifier; I would say that the mistrust was mostly directed towards images, towards anything that “made images” or “turned into images.” Against that, I would say that there was a contrary sort of trust in the text: the idea that one needed to stare at the text, to look at it up close, to read at a distance that could let the text appear as a pure signifier, a text without image, while at the same time there was obviously a whole network of images being developed in and around this vision. In those years, I don’t think there was a proper critique of writing; between 1960 and ‘70, structuralism was in a certain way a philosophy of truth, of the truth of writing.
PB: What do you understand by “image” as it relates to the act of writing? Is all writing a production or a manipulation of images?
JR: I was not making a personal statement about writing. I was just summing up the structuralist belief of that time: truth was put on the side of the signifier -on the relation of one signifier to other signifiers- while the signified was put on the side of ideology, or, in Lacanian terms, on the side of the imaginary. Everything that involved the relation of the signifier to a referential reality was suspected of being an “image,” a reference to the self-evidence of the given. Think of the criticism of the “reality effect” that Barthes opposes to the self-organization of the text. Such a criticism rested on the assimilation of the image to the appearance. If you think instead of the image as an operation, as I tried to do in The Future of the Image, it is clear that writing uses images, and conversely, that there are tropes in visual art.
PB: One could say that this faith in a text without image is in itself pretty old; one could trace it in the analytic dream of a writing without noise or style, the idea of a philosophy that could reduce itself to a series of transparent signs, pure acts of thought and communication.
JR: Yes, it is the old ambition to reach a language that would say exactly what it says; it is the drive and the pretention to define; it is this completely crazy idea, which inspires a trend within analytic philosophy, of making coincide beginning and definition. This is an ideology that our Hegelian training, I may say, has completely kept at bay. Despite everything, and in so far as we were raised as dialecticians, we were shaped into a way of thinking that is aware of the fact that beginnings have nothing to do with definitions, that definitions come at the end, that nothing is in itself in the word, and that concepts are only in the mode of a motion, that they are the result of a process. Already in the structuralist moment there was a clear opposition to this analytic position, but there was, nonetheless, a deep faith in writing itself too. And there was that other front as well, related to the world of psychoanalysis, this idea according to which truth is something that is written, even written on the body. This was certainly not my main aspiration back then. But when I became more sensitive to the fact that words are never definitions of things or states of things but are like weapons exchanged in combat, in dialogue, I naturally found myself very far away from such a conception of language.