Scarcity’s Reality and Its Dangers, Research Time, 20/08/2013

There is a long, detailed discussion of scarcity and its social and historical effects in Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. I have not yet finished it, but I’ve already found some very interesting ideas, not only for the utopias project, but that may apply to further directions I may want to go after the ecophilosophy project is finished.

After all, philosophy may be similar to art in some interesting ways, but here’s one way it’s different. When an artist finishes a work, she can release it and promote it, and eventually it goes in the back catalogue, and she doesn’t see it again until a reissue or a box set comes out, or a fan brings it to her for an autograph. But when I finish, publish, and promote my ecophilosophy project, that won’t be my last word on environmentalist philosophy. It’ll be my biggest word on environmentalist philosophy, but university workers need to follow up their research and maintain their authority in the field. We may be creators of concepts, but we’re also knowledge workers. We’re the people who also should lead the direction in the application and refinement of our concepts. 

I see two possible directions for my research to follow after the ecophilosophy project is released to almost-certain critical acclaim. One path, which is more directly empirical and involves a lot of crossover with other disciplines, is examining the nature of urban development, critiquing the shapes of these strange, sprawling ant colonies of concrete and glass we call cities, how they fit into the world and how they might do it better in future.

The other path I’m thinking of pursuing is an analysis of scarcity. This is well-trod territory already, but I think it’s incredibly important for understanding the material nature of the world we live in. Sartre discusses scarcity in very simple terms from which he plumbs a profound exploration. His definition of scarcity, given on page 128 of my edition: “There is not enough for everybody.”

A simple ecological idea, easy enough to understand. Populations, or at least their demands, can grow large and/or diverse enough that they outstrip the resources they depend on. This is when, to quote Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles, “We in trouble.”

Because Sartre doesn’t talk about actual material effects of scarcity just yet, only what happens when someone uses the concept of scarcity as an essential element of how they see the world. Everyone becomes an enemy, or at least a potential enemy, because when you see the world through the concept of scarcity, the success of one person necessarily requires the failure or starvation of another, possibly you.

Now here’s the kicker. Here’s the term Sartre uses to describe how you see a person when you see them in terms of scarcity: The Other. If you check out the stereotypes of continental philosophy, this term is one of the most famous. You almost can’t be covered in a course on continental philosophy without at least one essay or book that involves our relationship with the Other in any detail. The matter of ‘our relationship with the other’ is the key phrase by which continental philosophy is understood as dealing with the nature of society, social and political relations, morality, hate, and love. 

It’s just an initial reaction. But when I read this section, I could see Sartre giving a very pure and simply described version of this common convention of continental philosophy before its use explodes into a stereotype. He depicts The Other as the totally impersonal, abstracted way of dealing with people in a society when we view their existence as a threat. And from a perspective dominated by a conception of scarcity, we constantly fear everyone else, because their success can take success or even survival away from us. We no longer see a person as a person, with all their singular traits and idiosyncrasies. A person in this view is something to fear, someone who might take just enough out of the common pool of resources for living called the world, that you’re left with nothing. I have yet to read the chapter far enough to see what Sartre eventually makes of this concept and the associated perspective.

I have a lot to get done Tuesday and Wednesday, but if I can get a marathon reading session in, I’ll try to give a good summary of this long and intricate meditation on scarcity and materiality. If not, I’m preparing some surprises that you’ll see eventually soon anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Good point re the distinction of art and intellectual work, which as I read you is that we write for our colleagues and ourselves, not for a secondary audience.

    Great point re. "The Other" -- a much abused term that can't evoke much interest in me anymore, after an MA in postcolonial studies which really obsesses over the concept. I appreciate you recovering it in the psychological/ relational sense Sartre first developed (or at least developed in Dialectic).

    Two points:

    1. Re. scarcity and emotions. For what it's worth, your psychological turn led me to think in terms of jealousy vs. envy. Envy refers to something you don't have but do want. Jealousy refers to something you do have but don't want someone else to have. The poor envy the rich, but the rich are jealous of the poor gaining access to their wealth. Very different psychological orientations that can easily be conflated under a sense of competition over scarce resources.

    2. Re. scarcity and zero-sum logics. More broadly, the scarcity notion brings to mind Wallerstein's world system theory, which (I think quite inaccurately) assesses global capital flows in terms of a zero sum extraction from the poor to the rich. But the thing with many of the resources we prize these days is that they belong to expansive markets. So scarcity needs to be represented in multiple dimensions: scarce at present; scarcity of resources to expand market in the future; scarcity of attention / crowded market-place. Rich notion but very slippery.

    Looking forward to the surprises -- if you start writing about Deadwood, that would be a good surprise in my books.