- The Aesthetics of the Sovereign Self in Conditions of Post-Scarcity
I look at two notions of the self here in a discussion of the aesthetics of sovereignty: a sovereign self expressing and constituting itself through an aesthetic of control, and a communitarian self with its attendant aesthetic of play. In an attempt to reduce the discussion to manageable proportions, I will associate control with the issue of individualist autonomy, and play with the issue of collaboration. My main interest in the paper is to examine the notion of the sovereign individual self that is associated with the economic ideology of capitalism. Although there are a number of important distinctions between the various kinds and stages of capitalist ideology, I will focus on the portrait of the self produced by the semantic field that terms such as capitalism, late-capitalism, and neo-liberalism all generally connote.
A useful sketch of such a self is provided by Foucault in one of his Collège de France lectures: "the economic model of supply and demand and of investment-costs-profit [is extended] so as to make it a model of social relations and of existence itself, a form of relationship of the individual to himself, time, those around him, the group, and the family" (242), or as David Harvey puts it, "the commodification of everything" (165). The sovereign self with its focus on autonomy and its aesthetic of control as it comes forth from the ideology of neo-liberal capitalism is dependent on the notion of scarcity, as indeed is the notion of economic exchange itself. Adam Smith may have overlooked scarcity in The Wealth of Nations but the idea finds expression in the early part of the twentieth century with Robbins, who gives it a central role in the accepted definition of economics. Robbins begins by noting that, with very few exceptions, we have at our disposal many more important wants than we have means of satisfying them all completely. He then quickly moves to the definition of Economic Science as the study of "human behavior in disposing of scarce means" (15), or more fully:
The economist studies the disposal of scarce means. He is interested in the way different degrees of scarcity of different goods give rise to different ratios of valuation between them, and he is interested in the way in which changes in conditions of scarcity, whether coming from changes in ends or changes in means—from the demand side or the supply side—affect these ratios. Economics [End Page 147] is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.(16)
I will put this scarcity-dependent sovereign self with its defining feature of individualist autonomy and aesthetic of control to an imaginative test through a consideration of two science fiction novels by Charles Stross, Singularity Sky (2003) and Iron Sunrise (2004).
The two works by Stross are part of a small but growing number of science fiction novels that are set in a post-singularity and post-scarcity future. The singularity, according to Ray Kurzweil, is a "future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed" (7). Although no one is quite sure what life will be like after the singularity, all are certain that we will finally have moved into a post-scarcity world. The sciences and technologies which will bring this about are already here and getting us closer every year. The speed and capacity of computing power is growing exponentially so that soon Kurzweil hopes to be able to convert his brain into software; nanotechnology is on the verge of realizing the dreams of alchemy; and the recasting of biology into a branch of information technology will lead to the complete control over our bodies and our environments. Implicit in such a vision is the understanding that each one of us will never have to suffer from any physical want. The populating of the "us" has given some science fiction writers pause as they see little reason for the dynamics of technology transfer to change in the...