Accelerating Childhood and the Value of the Future™

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. But a wonderful thing to invest in.

This slogan greeted me the other day on a bus stop in Manhattan. “Better Futures™” is a simulated stock option that capitalizes quite literally on a meta-awareness of the absurdities of financial capitalism’s role in the destruction of that systemically crisis-ridden disciplinary institution of modernity, the school.  The United Nations Children Fund (UNCF), no doubt more than aware of its latent obsolescence under the funding arrangements of the neoliberal state apparatus, has jumped into the finance market–or, at least, its careful simulation. Soliciting “investors,” passers-by such as myself are asked to make donations to UNCF’s college funding program, which has been adapted for the era of cognitive capitalism by a forecasting algorithm that can tell me exactly how many dollars of “social return” will be produced for each dollar I put up. Asking, in turn, that I imagine the digital, viral proliferation of this campaign by asking my “friends” to join me in investing, the future dollars on the screen can multiply exponentially.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 5.37.57 PMEach “share” of the Better Futures™ (it’s trademarked, by the way) fund costs $10 and UNCF prominently displays its simulated stock market return value on its home page: 0.96% per dollar, per annum. If the function of the child as the anchor of national domestic reproductive futurism founded during Fordism has been eclipsed by the material conditions of precarity of the far more accelerated, volatile accumulation and destruction of contemporary financial capitalism–a capitalism that doesn’t need the slow, sheltered fantasy of childhood as preparation for the labor market–well then, UNCF isn’t going to wait for the Symbolic death of the child-figure to move on. Living populations of children for whom the demand for higher education is rising rapidly while its value is declining and yet comes at the cost of an infinite student debt are already offered a new version of education, one fully saturated by the metrics of financialization. Despite UNCF’s apparent marketing strategy of reminding its potential investors that the developing minds of children are worth more “socially” than purely monetarily, their conversion of those minds into dollars in their next breathe undermines any stability in the opposition of human and dollar value.

The simulation achieved is identical to Marx’s purest formula for capital accumulation, the one which financialization and what Maurizio Lazzarato calls the “debt economy” have fully realized today: M-M’. Money that creates more money.  The missing “C” from this formula–the commodity that Marx points out in the first chapter of Capital hardly needs to be written in when the beginning and end of a circuit of capital is money–is the cognitive, embodied capacity of children, one stretched out in its speculation over the entire life-span and divisible into spheres of value that include future earnings, “health savings” (biopolitical prognostics), “crime savings” (mass incarceration technologies), and the nebulous “other savings.”

Better Futures™ is another symptom of the financialization of governance, to the point of simulating and in so doing de facto replicating futures trading. Childhood is today a form of futures trading. By this, I mean that financial capitalism is not only an economic arrangement, but a subjectification machine. I am following here Deleuze and Guattari’s shift in Anti-Oedipus, for whom the “univocity of production” removes the economism from Marxism.  As Lazzarato and the other Italian Autonomists have explained through their careful readings of Marx, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault and Nietzsche, capitalism is a subjectifying machine and a machine of subjugation. One the one hand, capital produces molar subjects to labor, while at the same time it pursues what Lazzarato emphasizes as “machinic enslavement,” the pre-emption and capture of preindividual, virtual, and subindividual capacities across human and nonhuman, living an nonorganic matter.

In a post last week on the simulation of labor by children on reality television, I speculated that excessive representations of childishness are completely ineffective in the face of this contemporary subjectification machine. Indeed, part of the difficulty work on the child is faced with is what to do about the inefficacy of representationalist arguments about the figuration of the child in culture. This has huge consequences for fields like queer theory that have made their mark through a consensus around the subversive force of excess and failure, a consensus that has also been challenged and dismantled by recent work that looks to materialism and biopolitics to think through the effects of queerness in ongoing processes of governance through gender, sexuality and race. Although I find my way into my work through queer theory, I have been convinced for some time that the hegemonic position in the field has capitulated to neoliberal dogma. Wilfully ignoring, at the very least, Foucault’s important lectures on the entrepreneurship of the self that followed his initial work on the history of sexuality, queer theory finds performance, self-fashioning, and world-making all to be inherently redemptive, as if they were not also fully subsumed aspects of contemporary capitalism and its neoliberal logic.

Steven Shaviro’s recent essay on accelerationist aesthetics makes the point succinctly: “Neoliberalism has no problem with excess. Far from subversive, transgression today is entirely normative.” Not that this is only a problem of the past few years. Even in Jameson’s first essay on “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capital,” which turns 30 next year and which Shaviro also cites, there is a prescient moment towards the end that warns cultural studies not to forsake the relation of aesthetics and culture to commodification for the purposes of subversive critique:

we must go on to affirm that the dissolution of an autonomous sphere of culture is rather to be imagined in terms of an explosion: a prodigious expansion of culture through the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life…can be said to have become ‘cultural’ in some original and as of yet untheorized sense…It also suggests that some of our most cherished and time-honoured radical conceptions about the nature of cultural politics may thereby find themselves outmoded. However distinct those conceptions may have been–which range from slogans of negativity, opposition, and subversion to critique and reflexivity–they all shared a single, fundamentally spatial, presupposition, which may be resumed in the equally time-honoured formula of ‘critical distance’…What the burden of our preceding demonstration suggests, however, is that distance in general (including ‘critical distance’ in particular) has very precisely been abolished in the new space of postmodernism (87).

For Jameson, this dilemma is ultimately handily resolved through his Marxist subordination of culture to production. Returning to Althusser, but insistently historicizing the Lacanian logic subtending his theory of ideology, Jameson proposes that “what is affirmed is not that we cannot know the world and its totality in some abstract or ‘scientific’ way–Marxian ‘science’ provides just such a way of knowing and conceptualizing the world abstractly…it has never been said here that it was unknowable, but merely that it was unrepresentable, which is a very different matter. The Althusserian formula in other words designates a gap, a rift, between existential knowledge and scientific knowledge: ideology has then the function of somehow inventing a way of articulating those two distinct dimension with each other” (91).

The language of Marxian ‘science’, here opposed to representation as a purer form of knowledge, cautionary inverted commas notwithstanding, feels decidedly forced today, if only to demonstrate queer theory’s inversely naive and enthusiastic erotic investment in self-fashioning through non-normative embodiment and sociality. I prefer Shaviro’s contention that aesthetics name the only forces not reducible to political economy, even today. He speculates, further, that if this is so, it may be because the ontological is aesthetic in some sense. I understand this potentiality of aesthetics more through a convivial Spinozist vocabulary whereby the liveliness of matter itself–its ontological affectivity–cannot be reduced to capital by virtue of constituting the radical heterogeneity of the ontological itself, prior to a historical capitalism. Deleuze and Guattari’s “univocity of production,” in other words, removes the metaphysical anxieties driving Jameson’s prioritization of economic production while maintaining the centrality of the critique of capitalism, one particularly well suited to its contemporary modes of subjectification. (There is also an affinity here with Bataille’s theory of the General Economy in volume I of The Accursed Share, according to which abundance precedes the imposition of scarcity by capitalism, an avenue I would like to explore in the future.)

Shaviro’s qualification is that accelerationism is not a mere antidote to capital, for it also describes quite accurately capital’s extremely destructive contemporary flows, its response to its tendential fall in the rate of profit that Bernard Stiegler has aptly considered as toxic. Acceleration is an example of what Deleuze and Guattari term “anti-production,” a tendency all too materially registered unevenly across the globe since 2007. One form of this acceleration, I would argue, is the very capitalization of childhood, which, if only for the white bourgeois subject, was previously subject to an idealized sheltering from the market. (Consider, too, all the cultural invectives about how children are “growing up too fast” today.) The toxicity of the conversion of reproductive futurism into Better Futures™ suggests that an accelerationist aesthetics of childhood or education would be quite a tricky task. Not impossible, but tricky.

Following Stiegler, though, who thinks contemporary capital in For a New Critique of Political Economy through the pharmakon, the poison is also the antidote. The question is not to choose or not-choose to take it, but rather what dose is best, what configuration of capital would lead to its active overcoming. This is, I speculate, what Shaviro’s reading of accelerationism and aesthetics is also getting at. If there are forces irreducible to capitalism, they are an immanent and necessary field of collective political therapeutics, no matter how successful their commodification or financialization has become. Indeed, if Jameson reminds that Marx’s dialectic had the original goal of “lift[ing] our minds to a point at which it is possible to understand that capitalism is at one and the same time the best thing that has ever happened to the human race, and the worst” (86), then the destructive heights of financial capitalism might simultaneously offer new potentialities and virtualities for such a politics, even amidst unprecedented precarity. Both Stiegler and Shaviro point towards ways of affirming that understanding, but without the pitfalls of the dialectic, so poorly attuned to contemporary modes of existence as it is.

If there is a future to call upon here, it is neither Lee Edelman’s vilified reproductive futurism, nor that of UNCF’s Better Futures™. It is rather in the spirit of Derrida’s call to learn “to allow the future to arrive as the future” (233), as fully unknown, not as a future-present. It is a pure future, a future of difference and repetition, to echo also Deleuze. It is a future in which the value of those creatures we presently call “children” cannot be decided.


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