On The Politics Of Centrifugal Depletion

Scattered throughout the most recent years of this blog are citings of L. M. Sacasas’ newsletter, The Convivial Society. While an onging work of the philosophy of technology, it’s come up here more than once in the context of my writing about burnout in its various but related forms.

Often, it’s been me calling upon Sacasas’ use of Jacques Ellul’s idea of “technique” as ordering principle to talk about the ways in which normative society arguably can’t help but burn us out, and in this spirit I want briefly to cite this week’s edition.

[…] When I think about the forces shaping modern society,1 I tend to characterize them as centrifugal rather than centripetal forces, which is to say that these forces tend to pull us apart rather than bring us together. When I consider the forces operating on the person, however, a different frame comes to mind. These I think of as forces which deplete rather than renew us. As I used to observe with some frequency, the arc of digital culture bends toward exhaustion.

What I mean by this is simple: when we think of the way our days are structured, the kinds of activities most readily on offer, the mode of relating to the world we are encouraged to adopt, etc.—in each case we are more likely to find ourselves spent rather than sustained. The default set of experiences on offer to us are more likely to leave us feeling drained and depleted rather than satisfied and renewed. In our consumption, we are consumed.

It’s important here to note that what’s referred to here as “digital culture” more broadly can be read a “neoliberal capitalism”. This is important because Sacasas’ social centrifugal and personal depletive are two heads of that same hydra: capital requires the negation both of solidarity and of capacity.

Sacasas’ introductory bit yields to what he’s really after at the moment, which is “experiences [that] might actually offer something like rest, renewal, or a modest measure of satisfaction” and “can thrive outside of the bounds of economic rationality, optimization, and consumption”, and he says he wants to spend this year thinking about this. While I get it, and look forward to it, it’s also important that any such exploration not accidentally or even incidentally find itself in “self-help” territory—by which I mean that any philosophy devoid of politics itself is centrifugal and only superficially restorative. Or, at least, philosophy absent politics inherently is a stealth, even if unintended, politics favoring normative power.

I don’t, I should say, expect Sacasas’ thoughts on renewal outside the bounds of consumption to devolve or degrade into bromides of self-help. It’s just that any attempt to unearth such experiences cannot limit itself to the personal depletive, ignoring the social centrifugal—or, at least, it does so at the risk of digging up only band-aids and salves rather than truly transformative solutions.

Sacasas asks “what we get for our troubles if we should learn to attend to the world with care” and offers his own answer: “nothing short of the world itself”.

Alas, this itself suffers from being a bit the bromide. It’s not that his ensuing anecdote contains no lessons or isn’t important. My contention is that absent a counter to the social centrifugal, attending to the world with care itself often summons the personal depletive. We can’t address the forces wearing us down and tearing us apart merely by attending to the world with care. It might offer moments of respite, but it can’t on its own serve as counterweight to the might of what’s arrayed against us—let alone throw it off completely.

I’m not, I guess, satisfied with the idea of finding “a measure of renewal”. I want us not to have to fight for scraps. Calling upon Wendel Berry’s “fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure” is all well and good, but trapped as we are by and in capital’s concern only for consumption, production, and extraction, that fund can’t help but ever be outspent.