:: Article

Sky Market: The Ideal Neoliberal Non-Nation

By Elliot C. Mason.

Photo by Olu Gbadebo on Unsplash

It was 11.30am and the temperature was airport. There is nowhere colder or warmer inside the totalizing monochrome space. There is just airport climate. At 5pm I had a meeting in Madrid with someone who was translating one of my plays. All morning I had been preparing a conference paper I was to deliver a few days later. I would have to keep working my usual London job distantly, while doing some translation work in Madrid.

Basically, it was a normal work day—the new normal of neoliberal work days that never end because social interaction is also work. It is networking, which sounds painfully close to “working” and “net worth”. But still, I was at an airport so obviously I had a pint.

I had to drink the beer in massive gulps, looking around every few seconds at an infinity of screens that made me feel like a reversed Panopticon watching all the millions of machines accumulating data about my every move in order to sell me another pint, another flight. I walked airportly to the gate, the legs-straight-out-in-front sliding-over-faux-marble strut of the airport, marching proudly—like I’m the only person going anywhere, despite the obvious singularity of pursuit that put us all here—with the legal right to carry a loaded wheelie-bag.

We had already been assigned seats and there was no benefit in getting on the plane first, but anyway I stood in the queue. A few rebels remained seated at the gate, monumentally superior to everyone waiting in the queue, and I hated every one of those seated bastards. Some of them weren’t even wielding wheelie-bags. They still bore the weight of their laptops and airport whisky on their backs!

Since I couldn’t quit the queue and leave my place in the race to get to my assigned seat, and obviously it was impossible to resist downing a pint (I was in an airport, damn it!), by the time we got on the plane I was bursting for the loo. Then, because I’d had a pre-midday pint and the only solid options were soggy green socks dipped in oil and draped between two wartime granny’s curtains (the “Vegetarian Sandwich”) for a whole day’s wage, I was absolutely starving.

What would cause such madness?

There is a whole nation in the sky that is not subject to the codes of space we know. It is not part of any culture that we can define. It is a country without borders and without citizen allegiance. Its citizens, in fact, change constantly. It is a non-nation, bound somehow within the logic of nationality, but functioning as its antithesis.

There are around 10,000 planes in the sky at any one time, carrying something like 1,300,000 people. Add to that the number of people in airports waiting for flights at any time, and that is a sizeable non-nation. What makes us do it, and what does it mean for human life?

*

What neoliberalism wants is hyper-consumption (being limited to no other form of social being but consumption), no taxes, total uniformity, a strict hierarchy of access and an invisible, overseeing power harvesting data. There is one place where all this happens. The airport.

You have to pay to get into an airport, and there is nothing there to do but consume. Moreover, paid access is not equal. If you pay more, you have more access. The lounge, speedy boarding, the train or the bus to get there, first class seats. But, importantly, everyone in an airport is the same. Everyone is a consumer with a ticket, there only to consume and to produce value through data (their every move is recorded, the data of which is then sold to sell more to the consumer/producer). The airport is nationless, outside of the legal restrictions of borders and democratic authorities. And, finally, everything is watched by a ubiquitous system of controllers hidden from view. The overseeing eye is not seen.

The ideal neoliberal non-nation.

The crux of this non-space is that there is no conflict. Desire is smooth, simple, easy like late liberal tourism—you just turn up, smile, click, done. Desire needs conflict to be productive. It has to be a complex relationship between subject and object, in which each produces the other through mutual desire that connects multiple disjunctive elements. There must be connections that disrupt the clean, smooth flow of desire in order for it to be genuine desire: otherwise it is the waxy superficial performance of airport desire—an asocial, neoliberal transaction that simply places exchange value in different bodies for them to pass it straight on again.

*

There are two forms of destruction principally enforced in this desireless non-space—or, rather, neospace: the new concept of universal space that is consuming all other space inside its singular, totalizing logic. The two forms are environmental and cultural.

The environmental destruction of the airport is inherent in its way of being. It functions to collapse the world into one single possibility. Everything can be reached in a day, and the way of reaching it is by the extraction of the earth’s laborious history and the burning of that energy. That is, the earth turns into a singular possibility by dissolving the earth itself, by pumping chemical energy from the earth into the atmosphere. Only by propelling the earth’s inner fuel outside the earth can we close it into the grasp of a single day’s movement.

What this collapsing movement does is present all life with the possibility of non-life. There is a tiny risk of actual death in flying—the plane might break and some passengers might die. A terrifying possibility that of course creates sustained grief for many people, but not general enough to be the real category opposed to life that the airport and its machine of earth-collapsing hyperconsumption are creating.

The category the airport posits as opposed to life is non-life: the total eradication of the very concept of the possibility of life. It threatens to wipe away the knowledge of life. It is not about actually dying; rather, it is about the whole system of life as it is known by humans being forced to disappear, leaving something we cannot conceive of.

The other destruction posed by the airport non-nation is that of culture. Culture is premised on difference; not necessarily exclusionary difference that forces certain practices out, but on the recognition of difference between ways of being. This can be an inclusive act, and can mutually develop knowledge and social relations. Culture also does not need to be determinist or resolutely defined, but the recognition of social and historical difference is the only way to equalize histories of violence such as colonization and slavery; these systemic violences produce systems of signs that correlate uniformly to difference: a certain body type, a certain act, signifies a certain category. It is that system of signs that causes the violence of culture, not cultural difference itself.

In To Hell With Culture (1963), Herbert Read calls for the death of culture because it is a totalizing hegemony under capitalism. And indeed that is the violence of capital, to universalize its mode of economic production as the only way of being. But cultural difference precedes capital, and social relations formed because of difference (not despite difference) are antagonistic to the uniformity of capitalist culture. The airport non-nation eradicates difference by creating a space in which everything is the same: despite the levels of luxury, everyone is there only to consume and destroy.

The ideal neoliberal non-nation is the creation of the possibility of non-life, and its main act is to dangle that possibility in front of everyone at all times. The only way of resisting is to exchange. The exchange of desireless commodities will prolong the possibility of life in the binary dogma of the airport. Don’t eradicate the possibility of life: CONSUME!

In this smooth realm of desire exchange, every body functions only as a screen to display the exchange value of the other bodies around. One body is a comparative mechanism that sets the standard of how much consumption is necessary. Since there is no desire, no feeling to respond to in the creation of desire, bodies only learn from their simulated replicas how much is the required lower limit of consumption. One big yellow airport bag full of chocolate, perfume and booze. A pint at the airport pub. A limp-dick wrap-around pillow, a squidgy phone case with a foreign flag printed on it and a plug converter.

This is the site where the body is its own commodity, and all it does is trade itself. These are all commodities to add to the body. The perfume, the booze. There is nothing that functions outside or without the body. The body here is a machine for trading commodities, and it serves to destroy its own possibility.

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We need to say explicitly what this really is. What is this machinic collapse of the body to an affectless regime of self-exchange while investing in the total eradication of the planet and the differential idea of culture? It is violence.

In her recent book Gore Capitalism, Mexican philosopher Sayak Valencia calls this the “biomarket”, the site where the body is the commodity it trades to itself in relation to one singular universal form of existence: violence.

In the biomarket, all life becomes an endless enactment of value-productive violences. No one ever quite dies; everyone gets within a breath of dying, and then the violence takes a sharp turn, into a new kind of pain and suffering and self-consumption, consuming the body while using the body to laboriously work on more value for the body itself to consume.

This is a process reminiscent of Michel Foucault’s “biopolitics”, or Achille Mbembe’s “necropolitics”. Biopolitics is the form of sovereignty based in the ability to state who can live and who must die, a power reserved by the State when it has control over its subject’s bodies. In necropolitics, the preservation of certain categories of life becomes the deployment of death to all non-conforming bodies; this ability is exercised by both the State and anti-State actors, such as rebel militias or gangsters, turning a society pacified by the violent State into a society of chaos and ubiquitous violence.

We are talking about a non-land created for its exemption from rules, an abstract place where every body inside it is unconditionally subjected to its force. In this “biomarket”— or what we should call the Sky Market, the abstract, intangible, deadly paradigm of commodifiable Life—there is no one particular who is able to seize power and exert violence. In Sky Market, precisely the point is that the concept of responsibility is irrelevant. It makes no sense to say that one person is responsible and another is not. Everyone is involved in maintaining everyone at the limit of death, on the violent shores just before tipping into non-life.

The precipice of non-life, where all life dangles, is not the responsibility of Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair. It can’t be blamed on Boris Johnson or Donald Trump or whichever one of their stale replicas will be growling schoolboy violence in the houses of power by the time this piece is being read. Every one of us is mutually suspending every other over a precipice, and on the other side is non-life. Not just death, but the total eradication of the concept of life.

This seems a brutal thing to say, that it is everyone’s fault when, in 2018, 48% of English residents did not take a single flight. 1% took a fifth of all flights. Particular powerful people are deciding to expand the industry of aeroplanes and sell flights. Particular rich people are taking daily planes. While most of the world has never been to an airport. How can it be their fault?

Well, it’s not. Fault is not a notion that applies. It includes everyone; every person who exists and has ever existed is a part of the constant violence heaving everyone towards the precipice of non-life then changing track and heaving towards another.

Everyone is necessarily included. What has been produced by the totalizing violence of the absolute drive to profit above human life is a singular form of knowledge that overrides existence. This form of knowledge is based only in the accumulation of capital. Its only direction is repetition, investing in the idea that more capital will be produced from every action —more of the same; the same, but more. The human then becomes non-existent as a living being with the agency to decide its life. A human can only seek more capital. There is no other type of life possible because there is only one thing to know: more capital, either as land, money, cultural value, data, or, of course, Instagram followers.

In philosophy, the idea that knowledge decides existence, tracing a determined path for the living being, is called epistemic determinism. Its equivalent in Sky Market is more extreme, though, because it does not just control life or pre-inscribe its future. It abolishes its possibility. Life is no longer life, up here in sky city: life is intangible, abstract, and attacks with an unending and ruthless violence, so violent it doesn’t even kill. It just takes away Life.

Sayak Valencia refers to this new existence that is only violence, with no existence but no death; a violence that only knows one thing:

Through the establishment of hyperconsumption, capitalism—as the sole relational logic on the horizon, both materially and epistemologically—creates a neo-ontology that re-posits the fundamental questions of any subject: Who am I? What is the meaning of my existence? What place do I occupy in the world?[1]

The only answer is capital, and the only relation we can have to each other in that determinist epistemology is violence—the mutual creation of collective non-life through individual acts of exchange that turn the body into a non-body; a universal category of non-productive trade.

The body is still traded, of course. That is all we do in the airport. I trade some minutes of my past labour for a pint, then through my consumption of the pint more value is produced, in the form of data that knows more about me and everyone else. The body is traded, but it does not produce anything for itself. It produces only perspectives of itself. It produces, in other bodies such as data-gathering cameras and smart tills that track purchases, different ways of seeing itself. All that changes here is perspective: the way of seeing a body in order to maximize profit.

This is the fate of smart cities, far more than any inclusive calls to utopic communities. Smart cities—with their lampposts that track the homeless, police cameras that judge a person’s potential for criminal activity based on skin colour, farces of public participation when everything has already been sold to a private company, and their massive data centre facilities that emit as much carbon dioxide as the global aviation industry[2]—are simply the physical manifestation of social media: a factory for everyone to constantly labour in, creating valuable data for huge private companies. Smart cities are Instagram in brick and mortar.

The airport and its ideal neoliberal non-nation make this regime global. It reshapes the perspective of the subject to be a closed binary between desiring-subject and desired-object. I want that—done, I’ve got it. And in the process, the possibility of Life is destroyed.

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What does globalization mean except flight maps? Globalization is indistinguishable from what is euphemistically called the “aviation industry” (more accurately the celestial non-life machine). It is the creation of a singular abstract form that defines all life in one singular pursuit, which is capital accumulation. All things are exactly the same in an airport, even the airport itself, and all things are abstracted into a point that is neither alive nor dead. All things are suspended between the borders of inside and outside, between paying these taxes or those, between living or dying. Production is limited to an excluded zone of death—the hyperexploited workers without labour laws to support them—and consumption is limited to an included zone of life where the body is a screen marking data-accumulation and the only action is consumption. Both are caught in the purview of non-life, whose perspective is the global tracking mechanism of smart city/ airport.

To understand the sky as the location of globalization, we must first understand the land as the location of localism. One problem that Fredric Jameson notes with Marx’s understanding of how value is produced by the time of labourers—they give their time to produce something, which invests it with value—is that it does not explain why land also bears value.[3] Land is not the product of labourers. The reason is given by David Harvey in his 1982 book The Limits to Capital. Land’s value comes from an investment in the idea of its future productive use. There is a belief that the land will be used to hold a fancy apartment, or a garment factory, so it contains the value of the future labour that will go into those products.[4]

That makes it a local belief: the structure of capitalist time, in which the future is a projection of potential profits based on the profitability of the past, is rooted in the value of land. Land is local, and its value depends on its location and the circumstances of that location, whether geological, political or environmental. The investment is not necessarily beneficial to its local area and may not keep the profits there—obviously capitalists investing in oil and gas fields, refineries and pipelines in West Africa don’t give the faintest shit about the area or anyone in it—but its engagement is local: it denies local existence to produce its singular form of knowledge, a denial that retroactively asserts the prior existence of local life (there must have been something to deny).

As the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy realizes, globalization is not an inclusive global totality. It is not a gesture that incorporates every culture, person, history and way of being on the planet into tradeable streams of data and movement that freely connect disinterested, curious cultures. Globalization is the violent expansion of one singular ideology into every space on earth. All life is subsumed under one way of being, which is the way of American capitalism.[5] As Nancy writes, far from being a becoming-world, globalization is the making of the un-world (not the unmaking of the world, mind, but the active creation of an impossible world).[6]

Globalization, then, is the destruction of a plural understanding of the world, since its pursuit—like that of Sky Market—is to eradicate difference in order to convert all being into one type of knowledge, which is that of capital accumulation by data processing.

However, this destruction, as Nancy writes, ‘thus makes possible the emergence of the question relating to its being.’[7] It is a common feature of postmodern thinking that meaning is retroactive: it is applied to an event or phenomenon after it has happened. The collapse of the world as it is known is the opportunity for it to be thought newly, not in a simplistic circular logic of biological—or even worse, spiritual—regeneration, but rather in the sense that the world as a singular totality is represented in capitalist modern knowledge from the outside. The way we know the world is from one distant point of representation. It is seen as if from somewhere else.

In architecture, buildings are drawn and thought of from a distance, and the structural lines are placed according to where one particular subject sees the building from. This is called architectural perspective; the way buildings are seen. If that position is removed, then the subjectivity that comes with that kind of seeing is also impossible. Then, the violence contained in the supremacy of the distantly seeing subject is no longer accessible.

The same occurs on a global scale, since the world is thought of in modernity as architectural. Architecture is not the natural or objective way of thinking about buildings and the creation of living space. It is a historical and ideological perspective, as Gülsüm Baydar writes, that centres the historical narrative of Western capital. ‘Architecture as a universal signifier becomes the ahistorical reference for historical narratives. Architectures of different cultures are then seen as merely different versions of architecture. They are conveniently appropriated into the grand narrative of architectural history without acknowledging that it has been at a particular time and in a particular geographical location.’[8]

Hence Nancy’s assertion: when the world is destroyed by globalization, a new way of seeing becomes possible, a way of seeing from inside that allows the world to emerge, rather than to be compacted into one determined form.

This may seem like a stupidly hopeful point—that flying and the environmental and existential massacre of airports are somehow conducive to progressive human life. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that people should take more flights and care less about the environment because ultimately it will lead to something new. What I mean, rather, is that capital expansion carries within itself its own destruction. Its destruction, however, will be the destruction of all life.

I often hear people say that the world is stronger than whatever “we” can do to it; that after human eradication, the canvass will be left open for a new species. What this ignores is that the “world” is a historical concept constructed by a certain regime. The concept and perspective of the “world” die long before the physical planet stops being habitable. The “new canvass” narrative fails to ask what we do in between the destruction of the conceptual unity of the “world” (the precipice of non-life) and the literal eradication of being (death). It is important, then, to think of a way of being that contains an epistemology without the distant totalizing perspective of the world.

This would mean finding a way of knowing that is not rooted in the supremacy of the seeing subject. It would mean the use of smart city technology for the public benefit, keeping data in the ownership of the commons, freely accessible to everyone and anyone. It would mean public ownership of travel technology that is not premised on the destruction of the earth by fossil fuels and extractive capitalism. It would mean a resolute plurality of culture, in which architecture means a completely different thing in each place, time is distinct wherever you go, space is specific to particular ways of knowing; a true plurality in which there is no singular point of reference, in which all performances of cultural difference are not only different compared to the one universal centre: white, American, heteropatriarchal capitalism.

As I get out the plane in Madrid, shooting wheelie-bag-armed past the old people who still think they can walk here as if they were in the world, and race to stand at an anonymous point in the passport checking queue, everything is exactly the same all over again. I am standing in the unworld, leaving my temporary citizenship in the non-nation of the airport and its planes, having invested my money, time and bodily data-production in its continual nudging of life towards total non-life.

I get on the bus to the city centre. Everyone else on here has clearly just done the same thing, and the feeling is paralyzing. No one does anything. I am desperate for another beer, and for real food—the kind that never enters Sky Market, at least on my budget. Having just looked at the world like an omniscient god, scanning hundreds of kilometres of ground above Spain at once, it is impossible to adjust to the way of seeing of a bus window. All our existences now are based in a structure of knowledge that sees like we are always looking out an aeroplane window. We see the world from outside, from a categorizable, analyzable distance, every eye demarcating the world according to the supremacy of its own subjectivity in a competitive relation with every other demarcating eye.

This way of seeing that creates the unworld and a structure of knowledge capable solely of recognizing capitalist value can only be broken by a total reinvention of sight and knowledge, a new epistemology that sees the world from inside, that creates the seeing subject with each sight rather than enclosing every object into one singular, determined pursuit.

At the end of her book Gore Capitalism, Sayak Valencia tells a story about driving in her hometown, Tijuana, with her sister. They see the dissected corpse of a man on the road.

That dead man shook me out of my spectralized and comfortable idea of death, ripped me out of the mediatized logic that tells us that bad things happen to Others. The body makes me realize that I am the Others, without any inkling of humanism, coolness, or dillentantish solidarity. In other words, that dead man reconfirms for me that I am irrevocably marked by gender, race, class, and the geopolitical distribution of vulnerability. That dead man tells me that I am also responsible for his dismemberment, that my passivity as a citizen is crystallized in impunity.[9]

Our comfort in the airport and on the rumbling bowls burning carcinogens of the aeroplane is passivity in the mediatized logic that tells us that it will happen later, it will be tomorrow, it will be someone else. The seas will rise in Bangladesh, or some unpronounceable village in East Anglia, not here. Fresh water and food shortages will affect the people poorer than us, not quite us. I’ll still get my beer and sandwich in Madrid—that thought is complicity in the totalizing regime that pushes our data-farmed, hurried and horribly comfortable faces right up to the abyss that finally ends the pursuit of profit at any cost: non-life.

Notes:
[1] Sayak Valencia, Gore Capitalism. South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2018, p. 82.
[2] Vincent Mosco, The Smart City in a Digital World. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing, 2019, p. 231.
[3] Fredric Jameson, ‘The Brick and the Balloon: Architecture, Idealism and Land Speculation’, in New Left Review, Issue 228, April-May 1998, p. 42.
[4] David Harvey, The Limits to Capital. London: Verso, 2018 [1982]. From Chapter 11, ‘The Theory of Rent’, pp. 330-367.
[5] Donald Trump, unsurprisingly, misunderstands this, defending American nationalism against “globalism” in his attempt at a UN speech in September 2019. ‘The free world must embrace its national foundations,’ he said; what makes the free world free, though, is its constant domination of the global South. The free world’s self-definition as “free” is premised on its occupation of other nations, so Trump’s statement is tautological: it is impossible for a country calling itself part of the “free world” not to believe only in its national foundations, while violently undermining the independence of other nations.
[6] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalization, trans. François Raffoul and David Pettigrev. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007.
[7] Translators’ Introduction, in Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalization, p. 2.
[8] Gülsüm Baydar, ‘The Cultural Burden of Architecture’, in Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 57, No. 4, May 2004 (pp. 19-27), p. 25.
[9] Sayak Valencia, Gore Capitalism, pp. 299-300.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elliot C. Mason is a poet, playwright and essayist, working as a writer for schools in south London. His essays focus on race and the violence of neoliberal capitalism. They have been published widely, including in SPAM, Review31, and Undercurrent Philosophy. In 2020 he will begin a PhD at Brighton University on the space and architecture of Black Radical philosophy. His first poetry/essay collection, City Embers, is coming out with Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers in March 2020, and his poem ‘In Anticipation of Coming Rain’ is upcoming in MAGMA spring 2020.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 12th, 2019.