“Like Etsy kissed by philosophy”

Graham Burnett nailed it. More of a tweet than an argument, nevertheless Burnett's observation about cultural theory's current obsession with objects and materiality--that it's like Etsy kissed by philosophy--cuts to the heart of intellectual life today.

Etsy kissed by philosophy. Objects kissed by philosophy. A philosophy of vibrant things. A philosophy of encrusted idols. Philosophy in the age of foodies. Microbrews matter. Baristas matter. Black lives matter--chimes the chirpy white liberal--and thank God they can do the mattering on our behalf, just like all those other vibrant objects. (Mel Chen and Julia Bryan-Wilson both show how such discourse is endemic to whiteness and white privilege.)


I'm reminded of the recent controversy surrounding so-called “folk politics” in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams' Inventing the Future. When criticizing folk politics, the authors in effect conflate two things: (1) Etsy Politics or the idea that knitting bespoke sweaters matters at all on the world stage, and (2) Occupy Politics or an interest in direct democracy, localism, communization, or rhizomatics.

Accelerationism, in essence, means this conflation. Accelerationism means that David Graeber and Elizabeth Warren are both wrong, simply because neither of them are Leninists. (The perversity of such an argument will have to be explored another day.)

Like Srnicek and Williams, I've tried over the years to elaborate critical responses to both contemporary liberalism (the Etsy kind) and contemporary horizonalism (the rhizomatic kind). Still, I don't object to folk politics in the ways that they do, and certainly don't think that some form of reinvigorated cyber-Leninism is the solution. In short, folk politics seems to be the least of our worries, and, in fact, in the case of Occupy-style direct democracy, folk politics seems precisely what we need right now.

But, but, but... let's put all that aside. I can see now a redeeming facet of accelerationism that could be usefully extracted and extended. The Etsy critique is indeed very powerful, not so much as a diagnosis of the current predicament or a proposal for the future, but for the way in which it indicts the general aestheticization of the social. Buying a Tesla as the bourgeoisie's response to ecological disaster. Patronizing a microbrewery as the hipster's response to agro business.

The Only Our Ontology (OOO) guys always cry foul when accused of commodity fetishism, but it's difficult to see it as anything else. We have the reduction of the world to objects; each object has a “sensual” aspect that obscures its secret “magma” core; all objects meet in relations of interaction and exchange; the social layer is obscured in favor of the strictly material layer. That's Commodity Fetishism 101.

In the past I've called this movement a kind of FedEx philosophy, given that they see everything as an object with an interface (with inner contents obscured) moving through a network of relations. But I think that's only half the story. It's also an Etsy philosophy -- and here's where accelerationism's critique of "folk" makes the most sense -- because Etsy philosophy turns each object into a precious little melodrama. The poignancy of the object. The “vibrancy” of the scrap of garbage in the gutter. Recall Sartre's existential encounter with the tree root, only now the wood is dancing of its own free will, like those mops and buckets in Disney's Fantasia.

As Seb Franklin reminded me recently, this is a philosophy of objects but it's also a philosophy of services. Indeed such objects are implicitly understood as services. What can this object do? What can it do for me? A business executive queries his Apple Watch to access certain services. A menu of options, like a spa. The book practically writes itself: Spa Theory.

Have we forgotten Walter Benjamin's cardinal rule? Have we forgotten the dangers in aestheticizing the social? ...not to mention the political?

Of course the answer is clear. The answer, instead, is to socialize the aesthetic.