Commercial Realism

Perhaps we are all realists whenever we seek something independent from ourselves. But that desire for the absolutely other takes diverse routes. When it becomes a quest for spiritual participation, then realism becomes mystical. In what follows, the term “commercial” shall qualify an itinerary for such an esoteric adventure as it can proceed under contemporary historical circumstances.

Garden variety realisms commonly proceed along one of three dimensions: the political, the scientific, and the aesthetic. And among these genres, the scientific assumes the lion’s share of prestige these days. But the “commercial” variety we shall consider here would proceed along a fourth dimension that cuts across these three: a spiritual quest for participation in a circuit of alien desire. Obviously this is nothing is like a gregarious consumerism, but rather a commerce that might be inconspicuous, subtle, and even secretive.

According to the argumentative temperaments of academia, reality is only worth discussing where it is substantiated through proofs. To academicize is to seek positive confirmation through agreement among the community of scholars. These values would seem to render discussions of the radically singular (aethetically complex) faux pas. The epistemological, Habermasian bias assumes ideals of professional communication, where intellectual expression is intended to convince the other. This assumed striving for agreement reflects a sensibility which is promotional, democratic and scientific. This ethos is an entrenched and persistent legacy from the age of liberal capitalism.

Psychoanalysts have conceived desire as an alienation from our own words which is abolished by the imaginary agreement of an other. Then another speaks through us, and our desire depends on deferring recognition of the speaker and the meaning of the words. Desire implies an aestheticization of speech that leaves us bewildered by how our words are not really ours, and that uncertainty draws the horizon of an nonscientific realism. A realism that seeks no proof, but rather gasps in the hysterical uncertainty before expression. This thought is not skeptical because it’s posessed by an ambivalent will to believe. This ambivalence is reflected in the undecidability between form and dynamics.

Commercial realism is neither epistemological nor ontological. This is a political spirituality that doesn’t seek validation or consistency but rather participation. This is an opening to coexistence, and a praxis which seeks ecstatic participation in the circuitry of images, bodies, things, and money. This orientation is not necessarily promiscuous, because it can just as easily be prejudiced. Much of the ensuing problematic turns on the selection of modes of participation.

This use of the term “commercial” is loaded in a Nietzschean sense where a political realism turns on a particular concept of power. The defining essence of reality here is conceived as a contest between forces over the determination of sense. Thus reality concerns the chances regarding which forces might appropriate bodies and things into their associated discourses. Commercial realism is a partisan spirituality in that it takes sides in a struggle over the bestowal of sense. It aligns with a certain “commercial” ideal of assembly and control. So next there will be some mise-en-scene to introduce the background for this historical struggle.

Capitalism has been targeted by various polemics over recent centuries. It is frequently accused of injustices against something supposedly more worthy, which might be a community, nature, environment, tradition, workers, culture, life, minorities or aesthetics. Since these struggles have failed to prevent capital’s ongoing development, we might accept that it has a certain invincibility. And if capitalism cannot be opposed from the outside, then perhaps it should instead be divided against itself.

The capitalist system is composed of incongruent dimensions, the most notable being the financial, the industrial and the commercial. The operations of capitalist power often involve obfuscations where these conceal each other. The expansion of consumer choice is often used as a pretext for financial and industrial machinations. And there is the constant assumption of the equality and inseparability of this trinity, such that the dollars which buy financial derivatives are equated with those which buy bubble gum.

The commercial is produced as the remainder through the subtraction of the financial and industrial. So, we propose to attack this trinitarian alliance by composing an image of the market from a commercial perspective. A commercial image of the market – not simply an empirical image, but one that is transcendental – would attempt to break the spell of the industrial finance. A transcendental influence of a contamination, a dirty spirituality of confused flesh.

The commodity is a trinitarian object, which is to say that it’s involved in sumbolic exchange. Commerce proceeds as a breach on the margin of the capitalist trinity, a breaking away from it’s symbolic integrity. This breach pushes into the imaginary-real margin. Where industry and finance relate on the symbolic father-son axis, the commercial ghost is the dynamic third that forges and erodes their relation. This would amount to what we might call a eucharistic praxis. Drawing on the ancient legacy of the Catholic mass – its spirituality, figurations, and affectations – whose oral intensities can be turned against the logic of industrial finance.

Commerce can be refigured as the circulation of sacred wafers that bring us into a circuit of transcendental… prostitution. The commercial disposition of a population is a destiny which blurs the distinction between buying and selling, working and consuming. Commerce is understood here as a spirituality which is inherent in the aesthetics of tastes, sensitivities, figurations, profiles, or atmospheres. Commercial destiny is a decision about how to die by the mysterious gift of work, a dialectical enigma at the apex of liberal sovereignty.

Industrial finance imposes conditions of necessity on commerce. This imposes something like what psychoanalysts call the “existence of the Other”, such that commercial behavior proceeds under the spell of an imaginary das Man, who is a conflation of customers, bosses, invertors, neighbors, spouses… While it may be the case that we are necessarily chosen by the Other, or that the ecstasy of communication is contingent on the Other’s choice, there is also the inverse chance that the Other might be chosen by us. This is how we interpret the ancient custom of ascetic withdrawal into the desert: as a search for another Other. This is a mystical rite where the chooser is chosen in turn.

This search for another Other isn’t a search for an anti-thesis to the Other. This is to say that the concept of commerce implies some invariance. Perhaps we could name that invariance by saying that commerce is essentially American, and that there is no possibility of discovering some anti-American commerce. The problem is not to invent another commerce, but to possess the concept as it already exists. And so, the only option is to discover another America which may or may not be called China.

This line of thought responds to an elementary problem concerning the gauging of powers and the drawing of battle lines. Capitalism must be set into conflict with itself – it cannot be opposed from outside. The problem today concerns questions about war and its immanence, and specifically how new phases of the cold war are initiated. This term “cold war” names a singular partitioning of the social, or the dominions of alterity. We could say that this concerns the enigmatic modality of the cold war.

Commercial orgies such as Christ-mass proceed in an automated fashion under the spell of industrial finance. The traditional priest-function in the mass has been redistributed among celebrities, officials, experts, coaches, managers, journalists, critics, family, teachers, judges, and accountants whose images guide the passages into commercial ecstasy.

Perhaps the problem is to discover another Christ-mass which is no longer subordinated to industrial finance. This wouldn’t necessarily be a festival held on December 25th, but rather some event that can replace that festival. Such a commerce is the mysterious breaching or sublimation of an imaginary body without conceptual identity. This death involves a blurring between the affects and movements of various crowd formations such as festivals, political parties, aesthetic vanguards, spectator crowds, audiences, bands, circus troupes, comraderies, collegialities, nations, unions, and professional organizations. Elias Canetti described this virtual modality.

The liberation of commerce from industrial finance is never ultimately achieved once and for all. The commercial spirit must remain always trapped within the body of the commodity as it is cast by industry and finance. This endless exile defines what we call the secular age oriented between the limits of the “two comings”. An ultimately liberated commercial ecstasy would be the death-points at the alpha and omega of this history – the garden of eden and the final judgment. But within the limits of the saeculum, commerce shall always remain partially bound to the commodity form of industrial finance. This secularism implies a dialectical ambivalence or perversion which is essential because industrial finance provides commercial spirituality with a vital inertia and gravity of material incorporation. Without the weight of the commodity, commerce would vaporize into the cosmos.

This value-contradiction has the form of a Chinese dialectic, such that the good here depends on the bad. The commercial good is the intensive energy of a virtual spirituality. But that intensity can only exist on the condition that it is alienated within the bad extension of industrial finance. Without that alienation (that secularity), the commercial intensity would dissipate into the cosmos. Gilles Deleuze was suspicious of this sort of mortal dialectics, though he was not dismissive. This dialectic risks becoming obsessive, and so it should remain in the background.

This dialectical confusion of life and death reinterprets a certain Christian hypocrisy. Christianity has been denounced for exalting the “eternal life” (which is eternal death) over the “temporal life”. But commercial realism can salvage something from this dubious metaphysics, such that spirituality is treated as an intensity of death which survives only within the alienating ordeal of life. Secularism then is a paradoxical commitment to this vital alienation. A minimal tribute must be paid to the evil life-deity of industrial finance. Only through such tribute is the commerce of death afforded.

A certain conventional sensibility assumes that life requires the undergoing of some death. This is the idea that living well requires dying a bit, such as work and sacrifice. This is the idea that some things must die in order that the quality of some lives be increased. Commercial realism reverses this exchange, so that the good we pursue is identified as death, and for the sake of that good-death we are required to endure a painful and unfortunate ordeal which is called life.

This takes up ancient humanistic traditions and converts them to thanatology. It reconsolidates an spiritual legacy that runs between communion, communism, and commodity. This idea of spiritual commerce then is appropriated as a ancient custom which has been highjacked by industrial finance. The liberation of commerce requires connecting it with its antique spirituality. Commerce has been captured into economic ideologies of growth, optimization and efficiency. It has been caught between the logic of the engineer (the one-armed captain of industrial technology), and the financier (the one-eyed captain of activist accounting). Between these strata, populations are yoked, intimidated, stigmatized, scapegoated, stereotyped… eucharistic wafers of commerce are deployed as lures in elaborate traps of pain and pleasure. Industrial finance imposes models onto commerce, such that only limited forms of participation can be entertained, such as was the case with catholic mass.

This rejects the liberal and Marxist assumption that the commodity represents stored potential of labor or value, whether use-value or even exchange-value. From the perspective of commercial realism, the commodity rather appears as a shard of sacred death, which is to say that it’s a breach in the fabric of symbolic exchange. Industrial finance insists that this death has equivalence with work, or with other commodities, whereas commercial realism denies any such equivalence. Commercial spirituality then is a death that has nothing to do with work, or any sort of exchange.

This suspension of value representation was the aesthetic experience of 19th century realism, where the work of art was able to displace the commodity. That was the realism of the avantgarde: a taste that denies the need for exchange. Art has since been re-commodified and subordinated again to industrial finance. But commercial realism takes this commodification for granted and adopts a dialectic that assumes the necessary subordination of commercial spirituality to industrial finance. The commodity is treated as the damned body of the spirit, the extension in which spiritual intensities undergo their essential alienation.

This restores the classical motif of the master-slave dialectic. When Nietzsche mentions the “Masters of the Earth”, that can be interpreted as a reference to industrial finance, whereas commercial spirituality is cast as a Christian slavery under this master’s yolk. This relationship is not openly antagonistic. The slave does not launch any open revolt against the master. And neither do they entertain the prospect of a “consumer democracy” which the master promotes as a lure of industrial finance. Subversion becomes discrete. The commercial slave embraces death as an ancient tradition of spiritual commerce. They live at the degree zero which Lukacs referred to as a “low vitality” realism. The vitalist master on the other hand is burdened with the responsibility for the life of business, and absorbed into the frenzy of unlimited accumulation, growth, and competition.

This realist partisanship of low-vitality commerce is considered unfashionable and even despicable. It obviously contrasts with a prevailing vitalist ethos of industrial finance. And it also contrasts with the scientific realisms which are common these days. Against the trend of rationalist and formalist realisms, we propose a classical, intuitionist realism that would synthesize the legacies of Bergson, Lukacs and Nietzsche. This would compose an image of reality around an oral relation with a little shard of worthless infinity that betrays life for the sake of nothing that can be named.

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