Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Daniel Bell's The Economy of Desire (review)

Programmatic and original books on social theory are always far and between. Much of what is published out there are elaborations and interpretations on those few. Well, that's how science works, quoth Thomas Kuhn (1962). A shocking bulk of what is published in arts, humanities and social sciences is based on nicking poorly understood flashy concepts from adjacent disciplines and bloating them into published volumes. 

Daniel Bell's The Economy of Desire is basically an amalgam of a couple of concepts that Baudrillard and Deleuze/Guattari came up with 30 - 40 years ago, this time with a Christian spin. While concurring with the grand three on most points, Bell plugs in his religion as a possible saviour from the capitalist economy of desire. Coming out as a religiously-inclined scientist is not as shocking as it was in Evans-Pritchard's time, so Bell goes on freely with many rather plausible, as well as not so much ruminations on Catholic alternatives to capitalism. None of those is, however, examined critically, as a social scientist worth their salt would do. They simply end up taken for its face value and exalted for their ostensible moral superiority: fair trade is great because it is fair. Right. By the same token, green-washing would  be great because it is green. No surprise then that what we get from Bell is that Catholic morals are great because they are Catholic. But  then again, what would you expect from a professor of theological ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary?

I, for  one, would be the last to decry incorporating spirituality into scientific method. What I strongly object to is, however, is sugarcoating unexamined social practices with unexamined religious spin, particularly coming from an organised religion, which is a patently social constructed human organisation that needs a bit of social deconstruction itself.
The phrase that caught my attention amongst all that do-goody Catholic anti-capitalism was this: "Christianity... is a counter-discipline that heals desire of its sin-sickness". For me, it was like a wolf momentarily dropping its sheepskin. Creeps. In other words, we are advised to replace the capitalist super-ego with Bell's favourite Christian super-ego to let it control our life and everything we do. Rephrased once again for those unfamiliar with psychoanalysis, what we are dealing with here is a mere competition of rival prescriptive systems eager to worm into your mind and reign you from there, one hegemony for another. So how is swapping one psychic parasite with another going to benefit the humankind? There is actually a historical precedent: Jesuit Reductions for natives in South America. Who knows, filling the jungle with Baroque cathedrals may be a better option than the modern slavery-consumption cycle (aka, "work hard, play hard").

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