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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Consumerism and Ecology

The ability of humankind to persist increasingly seems contingent upon our ability to limit our consumption generally and in particular, to drastically reduce – if not stop altogether - the burning of fossil fuels.  This constitutes a contradiction of capitalism; on the one hand energy sources are a major source of value to capital precisely because they are finite but on the other hand, our survival depends on using renewable sources. Sustainable consumption presents itself as the solution to this problem as it seeks to nudge both producers and consumers alike towards more sustainability. Accordingly, this is an age in which we encounter various conscientious capitalists apparently committed to the task of reversing the tendency towards environmental devastation, for example Richard Branson, George Soros, and John Mackey.

However some authors warn that the destructive tendency is inherent to capitalism itself. For example, David Harvey argues that capital has historically expanded at an annual compound growth rate of 3% meaning that a doubling of the global economy is necessary about every twenty years. In circumstances where this growth becomes stunted, Harvey argues that crises erupt and have the consequence of re-ordering the economic infrastructure so that growth levels can be returned to. Global bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Harvey argues, are structured to identify what transformations to an economy are necessary in order to restore growth and then rigorously impose these transformation via the terms of ‘bail-outs’. Harvey argues that capitalism is a mechanism of growth, therefore imagining capitalism without growth and imagining that we can simply decide to have a zero growth economy is to misunderstand what capitalism is. While a doubling in the amount of capital in the global economy does not necessarily rely on a doubling of the amount of physical objects produced, or the doubling of the burning of fossil fuels, it is very difficult to imagine how contemporary levels of production, already too high, can be reduced, let alone prevented from doubling too.

For Marx, capitalism is a model of infinite expansion. Marx explained two alternative forms of commodity exchange. The first form is C-M-C, that is commodity money - commodity. In such a hypothetical situation, a person has a surplus of a commodity that they have produced, for example bread, but requires other commodities, for instance, shoes. Therefore, they sell the bread for money, then use the money to buy the shoes. In this form of exchange, the money’s existence is mediated by the need to gain specific commodities and the commodity is sought for its use-value (i.e. the person wants to wear the shoes). This, however, is not how capitalism operates. Instead, capitalism functions via an alternative form; M-C-M. Here the starting point is money and the tendency is to use money to generate more money by investing in commodities. Therefore, the capitalist invests in a commodity in order to exchange the commodity for more money. In this case, the commodity is mediated by money and the primary source of value in the commodity is its exchange value, meaning that what the commodity is and what its useful is, is largely irrelevant to the capitalist. According to Marx, this mechanism ensures a restless and feverish commitment within capitalism to constant expansion and accumulation. M-C-M, Marx argued, the procedure in which capital begets capital, is the operating basis to our capitalist economy and this seems to ensure that more commodities will endlessly be produced in order to satisfy the drive to generate more money.

A further analysis that problematizes any possibility of sustainability within capitalism is Andreas Malm’s analysis of what he terms ‘fossil capitalism’. Malm argues that if we want to understand why capitalism tends to burn so much fossil fuel, then we need to understand this as a matter of class relationship. For example, during the industrial revolution, some mills used water as the primary motivator while others used coal. At several stages there were highly innovative developments which pointed towards greater efficiencies to be gained by the use of water, a resource that costs nothing, as distinct from coal which has numerous costs attached. Malm argues that for a variety of reasons these experiments with water were abandoned and coal was adopted as the primary motivator of the industry revolution. Chief among these reasons was the fact that it was easier to exploit workers in factories located in urban centres because there was a constant source of disposable labour. By contrast building factories near fast-running water meant that the factories were often located away from urban centres, and therefore workers were less disposable. Therefore the reason why, in these instances, capital prefers burning fuel rather than renewable energy sources is because it is easier for managers to dominate labour. This reminds us that the reasons why capital functions the way that it does will be informed by how best to dominate labour, and this imperative needs to be understood in any discussion on fuel sources.  Malm’s argument is that capitalist class relations work best in circumstances where fossil fuels are being burnt and this needs to be understood in discussions of sustainability.

In any case, there is little evidence to suggest that global markets are on the verge of abandoning the use of fossil fuels. Quite the contrary, there are continuous increases in energy prices that must signal a long term commitment to the exploitation of these increasingly scarce resources. The amount of global capital currently invested in oil and gas is believed to be $4 trillion – or expressed differently, $4,000,000,000,000 – suggesting that nobody of influence seriously believes that we are on the verge of cutting carbon use. Put differently, the loss of such a staggering sum of money (roughly 8 times the size of the Swedish economy) would cause so massive an economic crisis that it must surely be inconceivable. As Frederic Jameson reportedly said, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than to imagine the end of capitalism’.

This is all to say that there may be structural and material obstructions that might prevent capitalism from achieving sustainability. Yet despite such arguments, there nonetheless remains a strong commitment to the hope that sustainable consumption will be achieved and is the right way to pursue the sustainability agenda.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Is a cigar more than just a cigar?

In 1923, Sigmund Freud - founder of psychoanalysis - was diagnosed with a serious case of oral cancer, which would eventually prove to be fatal, caused by his constant cigar smoking. While the link between cigar smoking and cancer was not clearly established at that time, Freud was well aware that his cigar habit was damaging his health. For example, in 1894 Freud was diagnosed as having nicotine poisoning that was causing chest pains and ordered by his doctors to stop smoking. Yet the withdrawal caused him to experience the 'horrible misery of abstinence' and he abandoned his efforts. Interestingly at the same time, he and his wife had also decided, after having five children in six years, to abstain from sex yet unlike abandoning his cigar habit, he found this latter form of abstinence more readily achievable.

Perhaps in denial of the seriousness of his lesion, Freud arranged for an operation to be conducted at an outpatient clinic by a non-specialist – a traumatising procedure during which Freud haemorrhaged and almost bled to death. The operation consisted of the construction of a prosthesis that separated the oral and nasal cavities, and Freud wore it for the rest of his life and it remained a persistent source of torturous pain. For the next 16 years of his life, Freud underwent more than 30 operations on his throat and despite the great pain involved in opening his mouth wide, he constantly underwent excruciating throat inspections. Even then, his pain seems to have been induced and acerbated by his constant smoking yet Freud did not attempt to give up his habit. As his biographer, Gay, describes it ‘The pleasure that continued smoking gave Freud, or rather, his incurable need for it, must have been irresistible. After all, every cigar was another irritant, a little step towards another painful intervention’.

Freud declared that smoking was ‘one of the greatest and cheapest enjoyments in life’ and the development of psychoanalysis unfolded under a constant cloud of smoke. Though accepting that his smoking habit was a ‘vice’, Freud noted that he relied on cigars to help him concentrate and focus on his work. At the weekly meetings of psychoanalysts held in his apartment, from which the practice of psychoanalysis came to be formalised, there was considerable smoking; as one witness attested, the room ‘was still thick with smoke and it seemed to me a wonder that human beings had been able to live in it for hours, let alone to speak in it without choking’.

Psychoanalytic theory conventionally holds smoking as a form of oral gratification and therefore an erotic pleasure, analogous to sucking a nipple or a penis. Throughout Freud’s case studies, he was quick to attribute oral references to phantasies of sucking at the mother’s nipple. The desire for performing the act of fellatio, Freud stated:

May be traced to an origin of the most innocent kind. It only repeats in a different form a situation in which we all once felt comfortable – when were still in our suckling days.. and took our mother’s (or wet nurses’s) nipple into our mouth and sucked at it. 
In terms of object relations, Freud argued that when a loved object is lost, a form of pathological mourning may take place in which the person identifies with the first stage of object choice. “The ego,” he states, at this stage, “wants to incorporate this object into itself, and in accordance with the oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development in which it is, it wants to do so by devouring it”. This constant need to devour the absent loved object can lead to forms of oral addiction, such as excessive sucking or drinking, or indeed… smoking.

That a cigar looks so similar to a penis leads to an obvious interpretation of sublimation and Freud accepted tobacco smoking as a form of sublimation: in 1897 he told a colleague that tobacco addiction substitutes for the “single great habit, the ‘primal addiction,’” masturbation. Yet this thought was never developed into a paper and he steadfastly declined to interpret his own cigar smoking as a form of oral addiction, or as expression of latent homosexual impulse; he famously responded to a colleague who pointed out that cigar smoking is clearly a phallic activity; ‘sometimes a good cigar is just a good cigar’.

Some theorists have argued that Freud’s cigar smoking ought to be understood as representative of an unacknowledged (and therefore unresolved) oral need. Freud’s own inability to recognise his oral addiction may have lead to Freud opting for certain forms of interpretation where others may have been possible. For example, in Freud's famous dream of Irma which was the starting point for his book the Interpretation of Dreams where psychoanalytic theory was first formally introduced, the dream begins with Freud and a colleague peering down Irma's throat. As Madelon Sprengnether was to note ‘it’s as though Freud’s dream had turned to nightmare – one in which he was condemned to play the role of Irma until he died’. Yet Freud’s own interpretation of the dream about Irma’s throat emphasised his masculine anxieties concerning professional mastery. In the light of his eventual experience where his own throat came to be excruciatingly gazed into over and over: may we speculate if Freud’s dream may have consisted of an identification with Irma which did not occur to him due to his own strength of repression? As his biographer, Gay puts it, ‘plainly there were depths to his mind that his self-analysis had never reached, conflicts it had never been able to resolve’.

Rene Magritte's famous image takes which translates as 'this is not a pipe' takes on a new irony in this discussion. Meltzer writes 'unlike the rest of the world, which generally has difficulty in being convince that a pipe, for example, is not necessarily a pipe at all, psychoanalysis needs at times to remind itself, in a type of return to an adaequatio, that it is possible for a cigar really to be a cigar'

However a deeper conundrum emerges in Freud’s own refusal to recognise his cigar habit as a phallic activity representing an oral addiction. From a consumer behaviour perspective, what are we to make of Freud's claim that a ‘sometimes a good cigar is just a good cigar’? If psychoanalysis is to be understood as a method in which we see everything as being "really" something else,  a subject that is grounded on understanding transferences, projections, associations where meaning constantly seeps from one object to another, then where are the limits of interpretation to be found? From this starting point, what does it mean to insist that a cigar is really just a cigar?


Gay, Peter. 1989. Freud: a Life for our Time. London: Anchor Books.
Gay, Peter. 1995. The Freud Reader. London: Vintage.
Laplance, Jean & Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. 1973. The Language of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac.
Makari, George. 2010. Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis. London: Duckworth Overlook.
Meltzerm Franmoise. 1987. Editor's Introduction: Partitive Plays, Pipe Dreams. Critical Inquiry. Vol 13(Winter):p215-221.
Sprengnether, Madelon. 2003. Mouth to Mouth: Freud, Irma, and the Dream of Psychoanalysis. American Imago, Vol. 60 (3):p 259-284.