You're So Smooth
The morphogenic history of capital is characterized by a smoothing out of the social body’s rough edges; a territory whose jagged contours and uneven surfaces acted as sources of friction, impeding the effortless flow of capital.
The rough terrain of the social body allowed one to feel the slow passage of time between moments of production. Between the time one wrote a letter to secure capital for a new venture and the moment one received a response, days or weeks could have passed. The smooth surface of today’s social body has accelerated the flow of capital to such an extent that the downtime that once separated moments of production has disappeared, taking with it all that depends on the slow passage of time. The feelings and fantasies that once developed between events, along with their significance, have grown scarce in an age of instantaneity.
To smooth out a territory one must identify points of friction that impede the potentiation of a body (species). If we assume the configuration of space is an expression of power relations then we could expect to see the logic of capital necessitating the transformation of space from a rough terrain to a smooth and homogenous grid. In his research on the formation of states, James C. Scott states the resource needs of mature capitalism required distance-demolishing technologies: all-weather roads, bridges, railroads, airplanes, modern weapons, telegraph, telephone, and now modern information technologies.1 These distance-demolishing technologies replaced the “mountain peaks, jumbled together, without any plains or marshes to space them out”2 with a highly coordinated system meant to transform space and time into manageable units.
The management of space extended beyond the natural world. At the turn of the 20th century, Frederick Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management. In the introduction, we see a handoff from the state to the private sector.
President Roosevelt, in his address to the Governors at the White House, prophetically remarked that “The conservation of our national resources is only preliminary to the larger question of national efficiency."
The whole country at once recognized the importance of conserving our material resources and a large movement has been started which will be effective in accomplishing this object. As yet, however, we have but vaguely appreciated the importance of "the larger question of increasing our national efficiency."
We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight. But our larger wastes of human effort, which go on every day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient, and which Mr. Roosevelt refers to as a lack of "national efficiency," are less visible, less tangible, and are but vaguely appreciated.3
For Taylor, the inefficient use of resources was, at its core, an issue with the management of bodies.
For Taylor, there were four principles that, if applied, would transform the workspace into a smoothly functioning machine.
1. The development of a true science
2. The scientific selection of the workers
3. His scientific education and development
4. Intimate friendly cooperation between the management and the men4
For Taylor, management of the workplace lacked "uniformity." Smoothing out the bumps and edges would allow for "The elimination of avoidable wastes, the general improvement of the processes and methods of production, and the just and scientific distribution of the product."5
While the scientific management of bodies preceded Taylorism, his fourth principle—cooperation between managers and workers—foreshadowed the future of the subject.
The efficiency of the workplace relied on the smooth integration of the worker into the production process. The unmotivated, lazy, and unreliable workers were impediments to the smooth flow of capital. While bodies could be managed by systems of control, cultivating the attitudes favorable to a productive worker required the opposite approach. In order to integrate the worker smoothly into the social body, a sense of freedom would need to form the basis of the future relationship between capital and labor.
The rhetoric of neoliberalism espoused the freedom of individuals from all constraints, thereby laying the responsibility for their life circumstances on their own choices.
Individuals were encouraged to follow their hearts and pursue their passions—to create a happy and meaningful life. Implicit in the rhetoric of neoliberalism's promise of prosperity is the looming threat of ruin for those who do not or cannot adapt to its demands—the failure to create a happy and meaningful life is seen as the product of one's own shortcomings. Championed by movie-star politicians, affirmed by business leaders, and fictionalized by Hollywood, the diffusion of neoliberal rhetoric throughout the social body has led to an internalization of power relations. No longer does the worker need to be managed; today, the worker is their own boss. This collapse of the old binary results in a transformation of the working class into a class of entrepreneurs.
Since the death of Frederick Taylor, many thinkers have continued to evangelize the power of scientific management. Tim Ferriss, an entrepreneur, author, and podcaster, has written about how to efficiently create the life you want in his books like The 4-Hour Workweek and Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers. While Taylor espoused the power of measurement and optimization in the workplace, Ferriss applies the same philosophy to the self. In his article Productivity Tricks for the Neurotic, Manic-Depressive, and Crazy (Like Me), Ferriss provides an "8-step process for maximizing efficacy."
1. Wake up at least 1 hour before you have to be at a computer screen. E-mail is the mind killer.
2. Make a cup of tea (I like pu-erh) and sit down with a pen/pencil and paper.
3. Write down the 3-5 things — and no more — that are making you most anxious or uncomfortable. They’re often things that have been punted from one day’s to-do list to the next, to the next, to the next, and so on. Most important usually = most uncomfortable, with some chance of rejection or conflict.
4. For each item, ask yourself: “If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?”, “Will moving this forward make all the other to-do’s unimportant or easier to knock off later?”
5. Look only at the items you’ve answered “yes” to for at least one of these questions.
6. Block out at least 2-3 hours to focus on ONE of them for today. Let the rest of the urgent but less important stuff slide. It will still be there tomorrow.
7. Block out at least 2-3 HOURS to focus on ONE of them for today. This is ONE BLOCK OF TIME. Cobbling together 10 minutes here and there to add up to 120 minutes does not work.
8. If you get distracted or start procrastinating, don’t freak out and downward spiral; just gently come back to your ONE to-do.6
While some might see Ferriss’ approach to life as excessive, his popularity indicates a transition from Taylorism to Ferrissism. Instead of a goal-oriented manager organizing the bodies of workers, subjects today manage their own time in the most productive way possible. Through the use of techniques, scientific research, and technology, the self is treated as a project that is optimized for the greatest return on investment. Smoothing out the points of friction in one's life leads to seamless integration with the social body and results in an acceleration of capital.
While the smoothing out of nature, the workplace, and the self all contribute to the acceleration of capital, it seems reasonable to assume that throughout the morphogenic history of capital, each level of the social body experiences a molecular existence. These three historical moments are, perhaps, best understood as representing lines of flight that have opened the social body to reconfiguration.
As the circulation of capital accelerated, the transformation of the subject into a project turned every moment into a potential moment of production. Consequently, the time between two contiguous moments of production shrank to the point where free time all but disappeared. With the vanishing of non-productive time, we have lost everything that relies on its existence. In Byung-Chul Han's work, we can find numerous examples of experiences that have largely disappeared due to the acceleration of capital and the lack of intermediate time between moments of production.
Three changes have contributed to a restructuring of our attention and cognition. First, the constant optimization of distance-demolishing technologies has accelerated the transmission of information. Second, the transition from being a subject to becoming a project has fueled our compulsion to produce. These two changes, combined with the asynchronous nature of modern collaborative work, create conditions that normalize multitasking, leading to scattered attention. The time that once separated moments of production and made contemplation possible has diminished. For Han, the shift from contemplation to multitasking represents a regression from the good life to mere existence.
“We owe the cultural achievements of humanity – which include philosophy – to deep, contemplative attention. Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible. Increasingly such immersive reflection is being displaced by an entirely different form of attention: hyperattention. A rash change of focus between different tasks, sources of information, and processes characterizes this scattered mode of awareness. Since it also has a low tolerance for boredom, it does not admit the profound idleness that benefits the creative process. Walter Benjamin calls this deep boredom a ‘dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.’ If sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new. It reproduces and accelerates what is already available.”7
The structural changes wrought by distance-demolishing technologies have altered the attention and cognitive tendencies of many individuals. On a massive scale, this shift affects culture, revealing how collective cognition is in fact a social structure. While uninterrupted production can lead to individual burnout, at a societal level, it can also precipitate cultural stagnation.
As production speeds up, consumption follows at an equally rapid pace. Today, streaming services and same-day delivery have become benchmarks for consumer expectations. Following suit, online dating has sought to expedite the creation of romantic experiences. Dating apps essentially serve as digital marketplaces where people market themselves. For Han, this brand of exhibitionism results in the erosion of eroticism.
“Capitalism heightens the pornographication of society by exhibiting everything as a commodity and handing it over to hypervisibility. It seeks the maximization of exhibition value. Capitalism knows no other user for sexuality.”8
“Direct putting-on-display of nudity is not erotic. The erotic place of a body is located ‘where the garment gapes,’ where skin ‘flashes between two edges’ — for example, between a glove and a sleeve. Erotic tension does not arise from the permanent exhibition of nudity, but from ‘staging … appearance-as-disappearance.”9
“This semantic fuzziness is erotic. Moreover, the erotic presumes the negativity of the secret and hiddenness. There is no erotics of transparency. Precisely where the secret vanishes in favor of total exhibition and bareness, pornography begins. It is characterized by penetrating, intrusive positivity.”10
With an appetite for immediacy, we have normalized transparency. In the marketplace of desire, there is no space for secrets — capitalism unveils all, taking the erotic with it.
As the world speeds up, activity becomes hyperactivity. The compulsion to say 'yes' instead of 'no' to the next thing reflects our slide into hyperpassivity. Nietzsche, who is cited by Han, considers saying 'no' a sovereign action. It is something that must be cultivated. Only by learning to say no can we block out the stimuli that seek to distract us from what deserves our time. This inability to resist hyperactivity, Nietzsche asserts, is a deficiency.
“Nietzsche writes: ‘Active men are generally wanting in the higher activity … in this regard they are lazy … The active roll as the stone rolls, in obedience to the stupidity of the laws of mechanics.’ Different kinds of action and activity exist. Activity that follows an unthinking, mechanical course is poor in interruption. Machines cannot pause. Despite its enormous capacity for calculation, the computer is stupid insofar as it lacks the ability to delay.”11
In these three examples, we see the disappearance of three experiences. Regarding multi-tasking, exhibitionism, and passivity, none is inherently concerning. In a society where contemplation is prevalent, an individual multi-tasking isn’t an issue. Only when structural changes make contemplation scarce does multi-tasking become a social issue. The disappearance of a contemplative, erotic, and free society results in a social desert. Occupying this desert are two figures. The first is the burnout, physically and existentially exhausted. The second is the achievement subject, optimized, self-controlled, and hyperactive. Uniting both figures is the internalization of power relations. Alone in the desert, they wander with faint memories of all that was slow, looking for others and a way out.
James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 11.
Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, 1.
Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, 1998), 1.
Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, 56.
Robert Franklin Hoxie, Scientific Management And Labor (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1920), 8.
Tim Ferris, "Productivity Tricks for the Neurotic, Manic-Depressive, and Crazy (Like Me)," November 3, 2013, https://tim.blog/2013/11/03/productivity-hacks/, accessed November 1, 2023.
Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), 13.
Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 24.
Han, The Transparency Society, 25.
Han, The Transparency Society, 25.
Han, The Burnout Society, 22.