Saturday, 20 August 2011

Down town: 10 exercises upon the idea that rioters are produced by riots

Fame and fortune is a magnet/It can pull you far away from home/With a dream in your heart you’re never alone/Dreams turn into dust and blow away
Do you know the way to San Jose

The tragedy of looting is not expressed in rioters’ unreflexive conformity to the logic of the commodity fetish. Their failure to break free from what binds them is not the achilles heal of their revolt. After all, the objects taken from shops undoubtedly are being put to a use unfettered by exchange. But exchange, or rather access to the means of exchange, is not where the fetish’s bind is located.  Looting does not release that which really holds the rioters in place. If it violently exposes the poverty of the social relation it still does not reveal the true nature of society's riches. 

The use of ‘freed’, or simply free (not paid for), objects does not produce social relations that are therefore free from fetishism (i.e. from the dominance of the dead over the living). The ur-fetishisation which lies beyond the bounds of any conceivable usage found in the layers of consumer products, layered according to the exclusivity of price, signals layers of exclusivity within, and of access to, the corresponding layers of the social hierarchy of being. 

That which the looters are unable to access in those objects they have seized is the social significance that the objects carry within already established social interaction. Looters cannot seize hold of the intangibility of social rank which is indexed by luxury goods. The relatedness, that which is mediated, as inherent in the ordinary circulation of such objects in the form of commodities, remains distant from the rioters. They have the thing but not what it indicates. They gain the object but the social standing attached to it still eludes them.  In interview, rioters have claimed to experience power, but this is power only in its most primitive and transitory form. The looted object is a sign of the relation, it does not encapsulate it... it has no magic power to free the owner. It does not unroll, like a carpet, the fullness of being.

Exclusive commodities are significant only to the limit that they express the given social elevation of their owners in relation to those excluded from such ownership. And that which is purchased, that which the commodity expresses, is precisely the exclusion of others. Exclusive commodities are not ends in themselves, nor do they indicate the possibility of a full possession of themselves. The object finally eludes the grasp of even the most powerful. Nothing is ever expropriated, nothing is ever really owned. But such objects act as shifting boundary markers, or measures, of the amounts of social peace, taste,  space, longevity,  freedom of movement, and of choice, and of command over people and things, that the possessor enjoys. Such objects indicate the degree to which the owner is not obliged to get his hands dirty. Ownership signals the freedom of the owner from being himself possessed.

What human beings need, what looting directly expresses, is the need for access to this territory of safety and comfort which in capitalist society is signed by the ownership of exclusive things. The things themselves do not grant the good life, they merely reflect it, as it is already established, rightful and self-evident. It is this territory in which wealth appears as confirmation of pre-established elevated social standing that most human beings cannot access. The looter is left with the mere objects, and the objects’ baleful functionality.