The Traffic in Trauma: Commodifying Cultural Products (1)

(This is the first of what will be a series of posts under the same title.)

Culture is traumatic.  It is not that some cultures are traumatic, and others not.  Culture as such is traumatic.  Thus, in the way I want to use it here, the phrase ‘culture of trauma’ is redundant, like ‘caninity of dogs.’  There are not some cultures that are cultures of trauma, and other cultures that are not—even “ideally.”  Rather, there is either culture, which is always as such traumatic, or else there is no culture at all, but rather at most the cultivation of trauma for the sake of someone’s profit, what I call the traffic in trauma.

Twentieth century French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, whom I also cited in my recent series of three posts, “Traumatic Selfhood:  Becoming Who We Are,” gives us insight into the traumatic nature of culture itself.  According to Laplanche, not just some but every cultural product gives itself to its recipients as “intrusive, stimulating, and sexual”—which is to say traumatic.

That remark comes at the very end of a passage I already quoted in the same earlier series of posts on selfhood,* a passage Laplanche begins by saying that “in the cultural domain” it is “a constant” that “[i]t is the offer which creates the demand.”  Before continuing to cite the rest of the passage, it is worthwhile for my purposes in this post to call attention to something in Laplanche’s statement of that “cultural constant.”  Notice that he does not say that it is the supply of what he calls “cultural products” that creates the demand for them.  Rather, he says that it is the offer.

Nor does he say, in this particular passage or anywhere else that I am aware of, that to create demand the offer that is the cultural product needs to be advertised.

It is a jaded cliché of our economic system and the global market in which we all live today to talk about “supply” and “demand,” as well as about how important it is for a sound economy to maintain a proper balance between the two, and how advertising can—and, effectively used, does—generate new demands that can then be met with proper supplies, either already extant (such as unsold overstock) or yet to be produced (like the yet to be generated next generation of I-phones).   Even the most cliché-ridden among us knows that supply alone does not create demand.  It may still be that the world will beat a path to my door if I build a better mousetrap (I confess that I have not really kept up on such matters), but even it that is still so, I first have to let the world know that I have built such a mousetrap before the path to my door will get any new traffic.  Merely building the mousetrap does not trap the particular sort of “mice” that I, the builder, am really most interested in trapping—namely, customers to buy my new invention.  I need different sorts of traps for that.

Not so with “cultural products,” says Laplanche.  Here, it is indeed the offer itself, we have already heard him say, that creates the demand in the first place.  The cultural product is not offered to fill an already pre-existing demand, as mousetraps are manufactured to fill the already well-established demand for ways to get rid of mice (or, perhaps, for the sheer sport of it, if “catch-and-release” has by now become de rigueur among mouse-trappers—as I said, I haven’t really kept up on such matters).  Nor does the cultural product need to do any advertising to call attention to itself, in order to attract or manufacture demand for it.  The offering itself, which is to say the cultural production as such, creates the very demand for what is offered.

That is clear enough from the rest of the passage from Laplanche, most of which I already cited in the earlier posts I’ve mentioned.  Having called attention to the just-discussed “constant” of “cultural production,” Laplanche continues:  “The dominance of human needs, undeniable but truly minimal in the domain of biological life, is completely covered over by culture.  The biological individual, the living human, is saturated from head to foot by the invasion of the cultural, which is by definition intrusive, stimulating, and sexual.”**

That applies, for one, to the addressee of the cultural offer, the one to whom the offer is made, eliciting—by the “cultural constant” mentioned above—its own demand.  Laplanche calls that addressee the “recipient” of the cultural product, in pointed opposition to calling that addressee the “consumer” of that product, I will add, and to which I will shortly return.  “It is of the essence of the cultural product,” Laplanche writes, “that it reaches [the recipient] with no pedigree, and that it is received by him without having been addressed to him” (the exclusive language is in the original).  It reaches its recipient as sent by an unknown other.  Even if the creator of the cultural offer is known by name and personally to a given recipient, then the latter still receives it as though it were written by someone unknown, since it arrives as something that speaks or itself, and not in the context of any personal connections.

The cultural offer thus comes to the recipient as an “enigma.”  By its nature, that enigma is also there for the one who makes the offer, the creator of the cultural product, though it is there in a different way, reflecting the different positions of the sender and receiver of the offer.  Cultural products—such as Goethe’s Faust, to use an example pertinent to Laplanche’s own essay, itself a discussion of Freud’s “Der Dichter und das Phantasieren” (“The Poet and Fantasying”), which focuses on Goethe—are addressed to recipients who remain “essentially enigmatic” for those who create cultural offerings in the first place.  They are addressed, to borrow Nietzsche’s subtitle to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, to “everyone and no-one.”  Laplanche compares the cultural product to the proverbial “message in a bottle,” a message sent to no one in particular, but to whomever it happens to reach (if anyone), whenever it may arrive (if ever), and even if it doesn’t arrive till well after the sender of the message has died.

Just as the cultural message comes to the recipient as from an unknown sender, even if that sender happens to be known personally and by name to a given recipient, so (as already discussed a bit more fully in my earlier posts referring to Laplanche’s essay on “transference”) the essential anonymity of the recipient of the cultural message is preserved even if the recipient “sometimes takes on individual traits,” and is known by name to the sender, as Vincent Van Gogh famously sent letters to his brother Theo.

As befits the anonymity of the recipient, the cultural message in the bottle is also sent without any particular motive, any expectations of doing anything special to the recipient, once received.  As discussed in my earlier series of posts on becoming ourselves, Laplanche points out that the cultural product is “beyond all pragmatics, beyond any adequation of means to a determinate effect.”    As it is only incidental if the intended recipient of the cultural message has a face and name known to the sender, as Theo was known to Vincent, so is it only incidental if the sender of the message has ulterior intentions toward the recipient, such as impressing, seducing, or enslaving*** that recipient.

Thus, as Laplanche explicitly observes himself, although “[t]he recipient’s relation to the enigma is . . . different from the author’s, [constituting] a partial inversion of it,” nevertheless “the relation is essential”—the relation, namely, to “the enigma” that the cultural product as such is.

As I read it, Laplanche’s notion of the “cultural” is defined by being any sort of “communication” insofar as that communication is not subject to any “pragmatics,” but is instead—to use a way of speaking I already began to use in my preceding series of posts on “Traumatic Selfhood”—a sharing that builds, and a building that shares, world.  By ‘world,’ in turn, I mean, following Heidegger’s usage, the “wherein” of our being ourselves with one another.  We might say that cultural communication communicates, first, last, and above and beyond whatever else it may incidentally “do” of any “pragmatic” sort, such as seduce, reduce, induce, or exploit:  It actively brings together into and as community, in the same way that in Christian liturgy the sharing of the Eucharistic meal makes all those who so share be of one body and blood.

The cultural profits no one.  That’s what makes it culture.

When cultural products are turned to making some profit for someone, they are turned against themselves.  They are perverted, in the strictest sense of that word, whereby what is perverted is turned inside out, made to be its own very opposite.  The commodification of culture, which is to say the turning of cultural production into a means for the production of profit, rather than for the production of our common world, is perverse—and perverts in turn whatever touches it, as in ancient Judaism touching the unclean made unclean themselves whoever touched it.

Today, people everywhere live no longer in any true “world” at all, insofar as the human being today has become homo economicus, “economic man,” denizen of the vast “global market.”  Indeed, for economic man,**** the world itself has been perverted into no more than the “globe,” over all of which the vast and still growing wasteland of “the market” continues to grow.

What in the bygone days of the 1960s Marshall McLuhan touted as the “global village” long ago morphed into what French philosopher Dany-Robert Dufour aptly dubbed “the perverse city” in a book of that name (La Cité perverse) published in French a few years ago (Éditions Danoël, 2009).  That city is everywhere today, even when its citizens are allowed to stay in their country homes rather than being bodily removed from them and moved into sprawling urban blights of high-rises, as is currently happening in China.  It doesn’t matter in the slightest whether the force is exerted by a state that joking continues to call itself “communist” (or to use the now not often heard phrase ‘communism with market elements’ to describe the thing they have been forcing into being since getting rid of Mao), or solely by “market factors” themselves (that is, going where the “jobs” are being “created” by the rich, to their further enrichment in their own wildly successful but never-to-be-spoken-of program of “income redistribution”), regulated or not.  The result is the same:  the demolition of the world in the erecting of the global city of perversity.

Whenever what should only be done for love must be done instead for money, there is perversion.  Whoever is forced to make a living by doing for money what should only be done for love is made to be a whore.  In what globally passes for the “world” today, we are all being pimped by “the market.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

Just last weekend I came across a wonderfully amusing/disgusting (tastes differ, I suppose) instance of just the perversion I’m trying to point to in this post.  I came across it last Sunday in the paper, which is regularly a good source for finding amusing/disgusting things with which to while away one’s time between johns.  It was an op-ed piece by the conservative hack George F. Will for The Washington Post, with the cutesy headline, “Lessons from the Abbey.”  The Abbey at issue was the fictional “Downton Abbey” of the popular BBC-TV series of that name, and Mr. Will was parading his credentials as a good, egalitarian, freely enterprising American, as opposed to the class-dominated, tradition-bound British folks depicted in the TV series.  The lesson that Mr. Will would have us take from “Downton Abbey” is one that he formulates so seductively himself that I would not dream of trying to improve upon his own words, which themselves also include others’ words, as will be seen.

Mr. Will begins the end of his piece by remarking how strange he thinks it is that “a normally wise and lucid conservative such as Peter Augustine Lawler, professor of government at Berry College,” would “celebrate the ‘astute nostalgia’ of ‘Downton Abbey’” and hold it up as “a welfare state conservatives can revere,” namely, one in which, as Mr. Will quotes Professor Lawyer writing, we are shown “[w]hat aristocracy offers at its best.”  That, in turn, is “a proud but measured acceptance of the unchangeable relationship between privileges and responsibilities in the service of those whom we know and love.”

To that Mr. Will—who is surely no less “a normally wise and lucid conservative” than Professor Lawler—replies as follows:

Good grief.  Americans do not call the freedom to figure out one’s place in the world a burden; they call it the pursuit of happiness.  And to be “given” a “secure” place amid “unchangeable” relationships is not dignified, it is servitude.

“Downton Abbey” viewers should remember the following rhapsodic hymn to capitalism’s unceasing social churning:  “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions.  …All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones becoming antiquated before they can ossify.  All that is solid melts into air.”

This (from “The Communist Manifesto”) explains why capitalism liberates.  And why American conservatives should understand that some people smitten by “Downton Abbey” hope to live upstairs during a future reign of gentry progressivism.*****

One thing that amused me in reading that last Sunday was recalling that Dufour cites the very same text, as part of a larger citation, from the very same source.  Dufour, however, does not take the passage out of context, the context in which the authors of “The Communist Manifesto” use the very remarks Mr. Will cites as part of a broad call to the “workers of the world” to “unite,” since by so uniting, according to those authors, those workers “have nothing to lose but their chains”—and in the process of losing which those same workers can and will liberate not just themselves but everyone, rich and poor, male and female, Jew and Greek, whatever and whatever else, all alike, without exception.

Whoever reads “The Communist Manifesto” as the cultural product it is, can only marvel at how deftly Mr. Will can take even that ringing call to arms to construct a true world for human beings to call home, and turn it into no more than another cheap commodity, available to all alike at no more cost than their souls, to be put to whatever perverse use each pleases.

* The passage at issue is from Jean Laplanche, “Transference:  Its Provocation by the Analyst,” in Essays in Otherness (London:  Routledge, 1999).

** In a way, that last remark is redundant, since the intrusive, the stimulating, and the sexual, though distinct in concept, are identical in the occurrence, just as according to Aristotle form and matter are distinct in the mind but not in the thing itself.  One can’t have one without the other/s.  What intrudes stimulates those upon whom it intrudes, whatever stimulates intrudes upon whomever it stimulates, and that interplay of intrusion and stimulation defines the sexual as Laplanche articulates it.

*** As in pre-Civil War America free African-American citizens such as Sam Northup, author of 12 Years a Slave, were forced into slavery after responding to cultural messages that of themselves had nothing to do with such self-serving, immoral, economic purposes (please excuse my own redundancy, insofar as ‘self-serving,’ ‘immoral,’ and ‘economic’ say pretty much the same thing).

**** Here, the exclusionary usage of the masculine term ‘man’ as what Mary Daly labeled a “pseudo-universal,” supposedly being as “gender-free” as dominant segments of American society today would like to have Americans believe America is “color-blind,” is wholly appropriate.

***** By which, of course, Mr. Will would have all his “wise and lucid” readers understand him to mean the sort of thing that will come about if we follow the siren song of such as President Obama, who call for such aristocratic things as increasing the minimum wage or regulating big banks and other “job creators.”


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