I recently finished Stiegler’s For a New Critique of Political Economy, and was struckby his argument that the role of machinery in economic production, a la Simondon, means “it is possible for the individual of the technical system to proceed in a way that is contrary to the individuation of social systems and psychic apparatuses” (99). In essence, this means that the social world becomes a process focused on the production of technical individuals, and that this has nothing to do with human individuation but rather privileges economic production in and of itself.

As I pondered Stiegler’s idea, though, it seemed more and more familiar. Isn’t this argument, in its basic contours, similar to the double movement that Karl Polanyi describes in The Great Transformation? It’s certainly similar. Using anthropological research, Polanyi begins from the claim that “man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships” (46). Yet the rise of the idea of a self-regulating market effectively disembeds economic relationships from social relationships and raises the economic as an imagined fundamental nature that precedes and structures the social, rather than the far more longstanding human organization of economic production to meet the requirements of social relationships. How the economic was disembedded from the social, and the reactions of different social institutions to this disembedding, form the heart of Polanyi’s discussion. His focus on the Speenhamland system and the subsequent New Poor Laws means to highlight how poverty went from a problem embedded in a set of social relations (between landowners, the business class, and paupers) to a structural goad in which hunger forces people to work for wages.

To my mind, Polanyi’s argument offers tangible examples of what Stiegler calls—though clearly thinking of more recent events—“the subordination of the technical to the economic system” (102). The key here is how we understand this notion of a technical system. Stiegler explains it as “a dynamic system in which there takes place… a process of individuation” (99). In his commentary on Simondon, David Scott more helpfully explains it to be the system in which norms and values are produced. In effect, it is the realm of subjectivity and culture. He explains, “the subject belongs to the particular reality posing the problem; the technical object’s invention resolves the problem” (196). Hence the technical system should mediate the production of individuals and collectives, and when it becomes subordinate to the economic, the process of individuation becomes corrosive, dissociative, atomizing—what Stiegler calls “a principle of carelessness” (103). Moreover, as the process of individuation slips away from the social, if not the human entirely, it becomes bound to what Marx would recognize as capitalism’s production for production’s sake.

Polanyi makes a related point when he argues that “it was not the coming of the machine as such but the invention of elaborate and therefore specific machinery and plant which completely changed the relationship of the merchant to production” (74-5, emphasis added). One must be careful not to misread this passage as a claim of technological and/or structural determinism: Polanyi insists that the state produced the notion of a self-regulating market. Yet because his focus falls squarely on the creation of a “free” labor market, he does not return to this point. That leaves us hanging, at least in terms of this discussion. What are the norms and values that allow the creation of a very particular technical object, what Marx called constant capital and Polanyi here specifies as plant? The effects on labor through poor law reform offers one view of its effects on individuation, but the more pressing issue would seem to be the role of greed. Albert Hirschman’s work lays out this ideological shift as an agon between the passions, but that’s not quite to the point either. Why the shift to plant? Is it an extension of the disciplinary structure, a mirror to the problems of poor house organization? And what does it mean that, at least for revolutionaries like Marx, plant was also something to be valued? I’ve analyzed this as an attempt to escape the slave/animal/dehumanizing notion of labor elsewhere. But is this not also a question of character? In other words, rather than trace how a technological shift or environmental shift affected character—i.e., the way Foucault has typically been deployed in literary studies—examine how a particular notion of character (and the social world produced alongside it) allows the economic system to subsume the technical system.

My first book tried something along these lines by considering how novels embedded in the financial innovations of the Great Moderation pioneered discourses and practices that could make service workers more pliable and reliable workers. One of the key issues I had in making my argument was causation. What I wanted to get at was something like the process of dual or multi-causation in Simondon—individuals and social relations are produced simultaneously, and then subsequently modulate. This is why genealogy matters for Foucault, right? The disciplinary individual/society pair is both cause and effect. Foucault sets it out as the resolution of a problem that resides in the heart of a factory-based society, yet as a way of acting, organizing, and thinking, it is less the solution than what we might think of as a set of necessary predispositions that the appearance of technical plant crystallizes as its solution. Biopower, then, operates at yet another level of individuation (or perhaps we might think of individuation as multi-dimensional, with biopower operating on another axis from that of discipline), crystallizing those aspects that solve its problem while leaving operative those of discipline, and so on and so on until or unless these processes of individuation come into conflict or the milieus alter in a way that renders prior modes of individuation impossible.

Why does this matter? In terms of character, it raises the question: what was this for? What problem did it solve? How do components of those resolutions continue to operate, or operate over time? In particular, and for reasons that have to do with research I’m conducting now, what does it mean that notions of character become so closely bound to the rise of military volunteerism in the second half of the century? Polanyi argues that one should differentiate national and international finance during this period because national financial interests profited from war and instability while international financial interests (e.g., the Rothschilds) profited from peace. To the extent that international financial interests helped float national debt and shares of various infrastructure projects, those institutions needed stability. The panic of 1890, due largely to the heavy involvement of Barings in Argentina, supports such an argument. Yet its hardly credible to ignore the role of British military power at this moment to threaten countries that hinted at defaulting on their debts. And the Opium Wars were precisely about opening new markets…

I began trying to think through what character really means as a discourse—hence Mill—and for literature asking how it works, how one lives in it, feels it—and now it seems as though it may be part of the milieu necessary for the aggressive militarism of the second Empire.

Works Cited

Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press, 1944. 

Scott, David. Gilbert Simondon’s Psychic and Collective Individuation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014.

Stiegler, Bernard. For a Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Daniel Ross. Malden, MA: Polity, 2015.