From Barcelona to Mars: Gentrification of the Universe
by Guy Walker
“The hierarchy of the world of created things, which has its apex in the righteous man, reaches down into the abyss of the inanimate by many gradations. In this connection one particular has to be noted. This whole created world speaks not so much with the human voice as with what could be called ‘the voice of Nature.’” -Walter Benjamin (Illuminations)
by Guy Walker
Up along the bright cloistered avenues, where the dull pleadings of shopkeepers echo down the piss-drenched alleyways, where packs of British men dressed in uniformed khaki shorts roam like lost fat dogs, where the steaming farts of thousands of tourists choke the sparrows and limping pigeons, there is yet another enormous stained-glass church, another bar of florescent yellow blaring a song by The Offspring, and another hundred festering scabby boutiques selling jewelry and pink skirts, Hello Kitty lunch boxes, floor cleaner, toy trucks, and bottles of rum. I shove my way between a German family arguing over a dropped ice-cream cone—the dad figure wearing a paper crown from Burger King, the mother figure sobbing into a lace hankie, and the toddler squatting low and slapping the amorphous glob of vanilla with his open palm over and over again. Past the fruit vendors crammed in their narrow stores, dozens of crates of petrified fruits glaring up at me, the onions and glossy aubergines wriggling in their plastic cubbies—choose me, choose me! Past the Irish-themed pub, the right-o proper bloaks tripping over themselves. Past Tapas & Tikki. Past Subway. Starbucks. Rainbow Munchies. Porcupine Kebab. Corpse Cuisine. Soon the endless road of deli-striped canopies and air misters leave me soaked and anesthetized. I’ve walked for days, then months, and my legs are stiffening into leather-stitched tree trunks, my whole sense-experience melting into the flat eternal monotony of a cosmopolitan conveyor belt. For a moment I don’t know if I have to it takes to continue, but then I remember there still are so many more shops to see, so I lean forward and push on.
The sweating cretinous herds of tourists and vendors are multiplying by the minute, like the horrifying images of binary fission of bacterial growth, the asexual reproduction of human bodies, everyone packing in tighter and tighter, everyone shoving each other to buy paintings of sailboats, traditional döners wrapped in foil, fake Ray Bans—really, anything they can get their hands on. I’m in Barcelona. Or is it Madrid? Rome. Athens. Copenhagen. Chicago. I can’t remember. And the frank reality is that it doesn’t matter. There are no pungent visible signs that suggest where I actually am. Just one swelling body of humans, everyone white, everyone shopping, everyone so desperately content. This is Life. This is the apex of modernity, the post-Utopian shift of the culture industry. The entire world, wrapped all the way around from pole to pole is one tremendous glittering outdoor shopping mall, people extending their selfie-sticks in front of the swirling pillars of Gaudi, or the glass pyramid of the Louvre, or with Spiderman on Sunset Boulevard. Groups of young women jump up in the air, kicking their legs back as their friend takes the photo. And then they giggle. We dropped the A-bomb for endless rows of boutiques and Apple stores, to drink our foamy café crèmes under patio umbrellas. We are finally alive, finally happy, finally well-fed.
It didn’t used to be this way. Barcelona used to be very much Catalonian. Just ten years ago you could play football in every town square, drink from wine bottles in the parks, play guitar and skateboard and pick-pocket the handful of tourists with your longtime childhood friends with nose rings and black mullets. Today it’s a collection of gift shops where you can buy key chains with your name on it. Because tourism is essentially the same thing as gentrification. New York: prior to the 90’s, Manhattan was hookers, thieves, drug addicts, poverty-encrusted artists and poets, and the hunched flâneur with crooked fingers. You could pull back a door curtain while standing on the sidewalk and pay a dollar to touch a woman’s baby-gnawed tit. But Mayor Giuliani pushed everyone interesting out, and the wealthy and super wealthy decided it was cool to live where the poor people used to live and now there’s just rows of stammering neon signs and storefronts for mega-corporations, and now a 600 square foot flat is $4,000 a month. Venice Beach is self-explanatory. But everyone who grumbles about gentrification, day-dreaming and eulogizing about the glory days when you could get robbed by a heroin addict and it was somehow romantic, are your standard young upper-middle-class types. It’s why Venice Beach is so awfully boring these days—the kids who live there are good looking, but just extremely flat and uncomplicated. It’s why the art produced there consists of faces of Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin painted green—there’s an empty acheronian nostalgia for the glory days, a celibate-lust for the wandering eidolons of yesterday. I too am just another smug millennial leftist who will find an excuse to reference Kubrick films, The Brothers Karamazov, or discuss Kant’s transcendental normativity as I sip my Pinot Noir at an art opening of some linen canvases splattered in ink. We all know we’re part of the weeping cyst of our own banality. My poverty is not a real poverty, not the kind that creates anything wondrous and burning and necessary. It’s comfortable and amusing, and still somehow lets me fly to various centers of the world and get drunk over and over again, like some stammering lost version of Groundhog Day. The ever-expanding fog of global capitalism now blankets everything, and the systematized copulation of the bourgeois has conquered everything that was once naked, tragic, and beautiful.
The phenomenon of self-herding tourists is of course the result of warenfetischismus, which, as everyone knows, is German for ‘commodity fetishism,’ the theory Karl Marx proposed in Capital: Critique of Political Economy, describing the relationships of production not between people—between worker and capitalist and consumer—but rather between the money and the commodities exchanged in the market transaction. “[T]he commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this.” Marx was, in part, responding to Karl Heinrich Hermes’ religious justification of the Prussian state. Hermes (as with Hegel) argued that religion raises man “above sensuous appetites.” Wearing chainmail mittens will make you not want to masturbate, for example. Chastity belts will purify your crotch. But Marx contested that it was in fact fetishism itself—economic, political, industrial—that was “the religion of sensuous appetites.” In the same way that we stare at a screen all glazey-eyed, fantasizing that the humping naked woman is actually moaning for us, we view the inanimate object of commodity that is endlessly churning out from the capitalist machinery will somehow come to life, will somehow bring us life. It’s why shopping malls are so horrifying and manic—everyone is caught in the coma of commodity fetishism, their screamings on mute, trying to break free.
In A Companion to Marx’s Capital, David Harvey details the concept of fetishism entirely dictating the norm of our desires, fantasies, wit, emotions, and so on: “we foreclose on revolutionary possibilities if we blindly follow that norm and replicate commodity fetishism.” To withdraw from all ‘revolutionary possibilities’ is to submit from independence entirely, especially that of thinking. It’s why there is always soma available in Brave New World, for every occasion, every holiday and weekend and momentary lull of sobriety, soma allows us to quickly return to the gorgeous bloom of glee.
Of course there are many who are taking opiates and soma-like substances to numb the state of all this incredible madness, but it’s the culture industry itself that allows the entire world to quiet the naked roaring animality of real-life.
Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s theory of the culture industry is the present culmination of commodity fetishism, the ever-present zombie of stimulation that counterfeits our desires and fantasies to adapt to its own. Samo Tomšič says the same thing in The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan, in that Lacan’s unconscious is not the realm of the private and the irrational, but rather a place where our political and social systems are most perfectly mirrored and reproduced. The capitalist construct is not a response to our inner private desires for more stuff; instead, our relentless libidinal appetites are a result of capitalism. We never wanted the shitty sailboat painting in the first place. We never wanted the Hello Kitty lunchbox. You may enjoy that açai berry smoothie, but you’re the same ugly thing as before. The culture industry is Life now. It is the first light after winter, the forever-flowing tit of humanity. It is the sun itself, the dreamy constellations we stare up at with gaping mouths. It is the first gurgling of microbes, the spark of cell growth, the whirlwind of neutrons creating matter from virtually completely empty space.
The first U.S. cruise ship has just docked into Cuba for the first time in fifty years. Buck-toothed children with runny noses ask their mothers with heaving muffin-tops what these strange brown people are doing on the island, or why everyone only drives old cars. There is no public advertising allowed in Cuba, but ships and planes full of white people are essentially the same waddling billboard for the fetishistic ideologies. I’m interested in what Cuba will look like in 5, 10, 30 years from now. Historically, when a ship full of white people arrives to a new virginal enigmatic landmass populated by exotic brown-skinned islanders, the events that follow are less than handsome. I don’t know what’s worse: the Santa Maria landing on your shores with conquistadors who want gold and slaves and wants to convert everybody to Christianity, or a cruise ship full of Americans in plaid polo shirts sucking on lollipops wanting to experience the so-called ‘preserved authenticity’ of your culture. I once hiked to Mount Everest Base Camp, and there is an inauthentic Starbucks on the way, in a quaint little village tucked away in the Himalayas. Neon clad mountain fanatics checking their wifi connections, ordering cappuccinos with extra foam.
But today is the age of space exploration, and now, finally, space colonization. Elon Musk has continued to repeat SpaceX’s plans to colonize Mars. Mars One, an organization based in the Netherlands, plans to begin colonizing Mars by 2027. We’re torpedoing our tepid flailing bodies into the empty cold blackness, the excrescent metal tube of humanity hurling to cover the universe. And don’t get me wrong, I am enthusiastically in support of colonizing other planets, and the indelible wealth of innovation that comes with it. Our curiosity for brighter horizons and frontiers is unrelenting. But this isn’t the same as before. Our prior horizons were drearily shoved along with priests and Puritanism and their death cults of banality, forcing tribes to swear off their practices that had worked for so long before. The United States government has long supported dictators all across the world, but at the same time attempted to force its neoliberal principles everywhere. But on Mars, there is no one to conquer, no one to convert. As far as we know, we are the only ones out here, the lonely dying match in the infinity of darkness. There is no one to overcome but ourselves. Where do we go from here?