Other permutations of the title of this post could have been techno-aesthetics of ‘living standards’ or techno-aesthetics of ‘the future’.
Mike Konczal’s piece in The New Inquiry on the work of ‘standardization’ in processes of ‘financialization’ was shared across my social networks the other day. In it he suggests that financial markets have in part attempted to solve a thousands of years old philosophical problem:
Are there only particular, individual, material things out there, with generic names arising only from social conventions? Or are there ideal Platonic universal entities, which exist separately from individual iterations of them? The financial system that has evolved in the past 150 years alongside capitalism in part attempts to resolve this question.
Konscal tells an interesting story of the process through which the phenomena of standardising previously non-standardised goods meant that these goods could be traded on financial markets. Does the process of standardising a good therefore lead to the material embodiment of a Platonic ideal? No, of course not.
Konscal’s argument is more sophisticated than this because it is concerned with relations between the present and the future. The Platonic ideal of standardised cattle does not exist in the present but on the edge of the present in the traded-future.
Let’s look at the Chicago Mercentile Exchange’s rulebook for a Live Cattle Future, specifically the legal content for what qualifies as a “deliverable” cattle. First off, “No individual animal weighing less than 1,050 pounds or more than 1,500 pounds” shall be deliverable as a cattle. “Unmerchantable” cattle, such as those that are “crippled, sick, obviously damaged or bruised,” are not acceptable. Graders are on standby to ensure that these judgments are satisfactorily made.
Pick any other commodity, and you’ll find the contract that similarly marks what the ideal form of it should be. [...]
The system of standardization in futures contracts resolved the particular into the general and came to be heralded as a major financial innovation. The name of the thing produced the thing, rather than the thing producing the name: nominalism vs. realism solved.
‘Ideal form’ in the sense of a Platonic ideal form? Nope.
Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Falsity” takes aim with this problem, of the relation between the infinite variability of actual materiality and the anthropomorphic drive for ‘truth’ in speech and ‘ideas’ or what in this context Konscal calls a ‘standard’. Ideas do not originate from an ideal, but through a process of equating the unequal:
Every word becomes at once an idea not by having, as one might presume, to serve as a reminder for the original experience happening but once and absolutely individualised, to which experience such word owes its origin, no, but by having simultaneously to fit innumerable, more or less similar (which really means never equal, therefore altogether unequal) cases. Every idea originates through equating the unequal. [...]
The disregarding of the individual and real furnishes us with the idea, as it like-wise also gives us the form ; whereas nature knows of no forms and ideas, and therefore knows no species but only an x, to us inaccessible and indefinable. For our antithesis of individual and species is anthropomorphic too and does not come from the essence ‘ of things, although on the other hand we do not dare to say that it does not correspond to it ; for that would be a dogmatic assertion and as such just as undemonstrable as its contrary. [...]
His procedure is to apply man as the measure of all things, whereby he starts from the error of believing that he has these things immediately before him as pure objects. He therefore forgets that the original metaphors of perception are metaphors, and takes them for the things themselves.
Most interpretations of Nietzsche have focused on what is called the implicit ‘perspectivism’ of his position on truth. I am interested in the non-anthropomorphic “original experience happening but once and absolutely individualised” and how this relates to what Duns Scotus called a ‘haecceity’ and Gilbert Simondon called a process of individuation. One aspect of individuation often forgotten is that it describes not just an ‘individual’ (a person, a cow, anything) but also the ‘environment’ or context within which the individual is individuated. One way to interpret this is through what Simondon called an analysis of the relation between an individual and environment techno-aesthetics.
Techno-aesthetics attends not to the aesthetics of forms (ideal or otherwise) but the regularity of singular points through which the individual-environment relation is composed and the individual individuated. In related work Simondon explored the very long historical shifts that led to the emergence of technology and religion from a “primitive magical unity” as the the human being’s first mode of being. Primitive Magical Unity is characterised by an immobile connection of singular way-points, embodied in mountains and the like, whereby the mountain serves as a conduit to an extra-human realm. Religion produces a new ground, while Technology mobilises the singular-relation itself and Technicity is a kind of embodied relational index of this process.
The techno-aesthetics of cattle futures is not concerned with the ideal form of cattle as discursively embodied in legal rules but with, firstly, the existing (past) process of individuation through which cattle are individuated and, secondly, the way in which ‘futures’ serve as a connection between this existing (past) process of individuation and another future process of individuation. Experience-based knowledges are implicit here, so for example an expect ‘cattle reader’ can read the process of individuation off a given herd of cattle
What is the second process of individuation? It is the deployment of the cattle as socio-technology to individuate a set of relations that we call a ‘market’. Traders of cattle futures do not want ‘ideal cattle’ they want an instrument that allows them to pursue the individuation of a second market that will ‘consume’ the cattle (in reality, they are merely just the next linkage in a series of Latour’s mediators). Inherent to all this is a legally sanctioned form of trust, which Nietzsche suggested underpins the evolution of ‘truth’. Massumi describes the affective dimension of this connection between two processes of individuation an ‘operational linkage’. Consumers are caught up in this process too, as the flipside of the individuated market. The consumers’ affective relation is talked about in economics as ‘confidence’.
Konscal of course recognises this, in particular when he turns his attention to the failed attempt to ‘financialise’ toxic home loans:
Not only were these contracts designed to make the bad-mortgage future, they were also ill-prepared for the contingencies they pretended to tame and master. When the housing market collapsed, the creators of these contracts lacked the thorough knowledge of the mortgage contracts within them—highly individualized relations between lenders and borrowers, each with their own nuances—that would have been necessary to recover some of their value.
In this context the risk/opportunity nexus serves as the operational-linkage between (at least) two processes of individuation. What Konscal has isolated is not the apparent attempt of bankers to ‘solve’ a many thousands year old problem of ideational ontology, but the specific failure of bankers to, firstly, appreciate the process of individuation by which ‘risks’ (and, by extension ‘opportunities’) are created, and secondly, even if they did appreciate this, they lacked the operational “knowledge of the [...] highly individualized relations between lenders and borrowers, each with their own nuances”. Or as Konscal puts it more bluntly: “They proved to be farmers who couldn’t tell cows from cow shit.”