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Dopamine Fantasies of our Land of Cockaigne
unboxing the tragic paradox of consumption by glancing at the production of ‘dopamine stock’, scarcity – and the collective fantasy at the heart of consumption
Back in May, I began trying to align the brutal enormity of containerised shipping – ploughing the debounded oceans of our planetary community of fate – with the floating, twitching Jellyfish tentacle sensitivity of consumption in the minds, lives and hands of its desiring subjects.
Desire was my way in: desire is no coincidence, I remonstrated.
At base, what I was trying to get at was a series of metonymic links between a few low-hanging fruits: Yayoi Kusama’s stare and Kaitlyn’s Kukumber in the global supply chain, our ‘giant waste-producing Rube Goldberg machine... that gives us dopamine spurts every day’.
What of dopamine, then – as a way further into desire, as well as consumption? What of Baudrillard’s theory of consumption (full circle) as a way back to dopamine, and beyond it a little?
Baudrillard puts his ‘entry into consommation1’ so beautifully here (and let me lead with it, without comment, and then jump straight to some points around dopamine):
“This is the tragic paradox of consumption. Everyone wants to put – believes he has put – his desire into every object possessed, consumed, and into every minute of free time, but from every object appropriated, from every satisfaction achieved, and from every 'available' minute, the desire is already absent, necessarily absent. All that remains is consommé of desire” (152).
Dopamine has become a short-hand for a circuit of the things of desire, the very many, limitless, expensive, expended objects that are appealing-irresistible-rewarding to all of us, as craving-lacking creatures with bodies that need and want.
Dopamine is also a way of denoting our prevalent culture and its affordances, especially those that co-create addiction, dependency, burnout, and the sad spectacle of the Screen Slaver. A student of mine, who scrolled TikTok for 3-4 hours a day ‘to unwind’, told me directly how they felt after getting off: ‘I feel empty, totally emptied out – then the next day, I go back.’
Dopamine to emptyness; busyness, then emptyness – excess – then emptiness; our brains clarified into the consommé of desire, the burnt empty feeling of us all embodying the tragic paradox that getting is emptying.
Whatever your bag is, unboxing is also about getting off as well as getting it out (and sticking it in), the frittering away of the stuff we’ve ordered and opened and are pounding and smashing2, and the fleeting flitting of the good feeling, followed by the onset of the lacking wanting craving yearning.
We’ve come to know too about the confluence of dopamine and variable rewards designed into sticky, addictive-by-design GUIs; this is one of the ‘whys’ of why we unwisely keep picking up and checking and using and scrolling on our phones. It partly accounts for why we pound ice cream and binge TV (then have no sex) in our society of Netflix with no chill3; it speaks to some reasons for the increased global prevalence of cocaine; and the symptomatic set of ‘emptiness’, at the end of this chass, shows us how dopamine’s sudden withdrawal brings on that undeniable feeling of emptied boxes.
Containerisation is always about decontainment.
No one considers Pandora’s box, the box itself, after Pandora had opened it. The box was empty; Pandora felt empty.
Can the myths and structures of our economics capture the consumption that happense after the consummation after the decontainment? Baudrillard says no, and shows us the way to the Land of Cockaigne (scroll to terminus); but what if, for a few paragraphs, we followed a post-section-length experiment that said yes?
Lets look at economics and its myths and structures; let’s look at dopamine and cocaine and the War on Drugs.
Where dopamine has interacted with cocaine in the context of the War on Drugs, the US-led policy has been to avoid a direct acknowledgment of the biopsychosocial circuits of reward-demand-pleasure we live by4. Instead, the enforced policy-police response is predicated in ignoring everything we know about why we desire and acknowledging that, in a global consumer society, we demand.
Instead, the War on Drugs’ avatars switch to the myth that applying a combination of supply side assumptions to coercive, paramilitary policing, mass incarceration, and hypocritical moralising, will produce a ‘drug free world’ (in which we can ‘just say no’, because we ‘cannot say yes’, because there’s no drugs [ironically, then, by removing rational-individual choice]). The fairy tale runs that, if we use intrusive investigations to intercept comms and networks, and back this by deploying coercive powers to seize supply, arrest traffickers (and hand out massive sentences) especially at the border, in the ports – we will nip demand in the bud before it gets going. If we do this well enough, and also get local cops to bust dealers involved in gram and kilo-scale retail markets, so it has been said, cocaine (eg) will become so expensive, scarce and hard to get that most people won’t bother. Half a century in, and cocaine on both sides of the North Atlantic is cheaper, more prevalent, and of higher purity than ever before.
What if we stay with utility-pleasure-choice (as the assumptions that underpin supply-side coercive policing and punitive treatment), but switch over to demand (and pleasure)?
If we do, a more interesting and accurate picture crops up: the drugs get in (and they do!) – and at scale (and they do!) – because very many people really want (eg) cocaine, and they’re prepared to pay so much for it that anyone involved in its distribution at kilo and tonne scale can throw enough organisation and resources at the risk to circumvent it, or deal with it when it arises.
*Given* the coercive policing of supply, this of course means concealment, which is what trafficking is.
We can then get curious about consumption, if we’ve acknowledged the above: so why do people want cocaine, actually? Because it is intensely pleasurable and rewarding, in the same way, through the same embodied pathways, in the same human bodies, that ice cream, scrolling, gaming and online gambling is.
We can then start to see cocaine is the consummation of a whole culture geared around work/play and weekend ‘reward’; cocaine is basically dopamine consommé in powdered form; cocaine is dopamine stock powder. It’s amazing it doesn’t come in cubes yet5. But it does come in boxes, by the TEU.
But back to the deeper and more critical question that Baudrillard asks in order to get to the tragic paradox he reveals: can the hydraulic metaphors of economics – whether of supply’s pushers or demand’s ‘pullers’ – really get at what’s going on in this key dopamine consommé of our global cities?
More deeply, is consumption really about utility, is it really about pleasure, is it really a rational-individual choice? There’s a lot to unbox – more than one post’s worth – but if we start by going ‘one click’ back to scarcity (the root assumption behind all stereotypical economic thinking, which then gives birth to utility-pleasure-choice), we can start opening it up.
To clear the way to opening the scarcity box, we have to acknowledge the power of the division of labour; Baudrillard follows Durkheim and Smith to get ‘back behind’ the assumptions, pistons and curves of economic thinking, in all its push and pull.
The division of labour: its differentiating specialisations, its manias, its large urban markets, have served-and-become the science that has powered our industrial society (and now threatens its ecosocial involution).
It was this division of labour that would lead 19C German engineers and chemists to create the wild stuff that underpins the world in which we actually live. Consider the fateful worldmaking conditions that allowed Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch to conceive of a process to create ammonia and hydrogen (patented by BASF in 1911); Rudolph Diesel coming up with a more efficient way of running an internal combustion engine (1893); and Albert Niemann6 isolating an alkaloid salt from coca – that he also named cocaine (1860).
So the division of labour gets us cocaine (but only from the 1860s), the diesel engines to truck and ship it to us in our global cities (but only from the 1890s), and the fertiliser (and other chemicals) (but only from the 1920s, at scale) to grow coca and process it into that which supplies our demand.
But what’s supposedly different about our division of labour, as compared to those of our ancestors and their less boxy or totally boxless cultures?
Scarcity, in a word. Ours, actually.
It is we who live in societies of scarcity, not they. Following Sahlins7, Baudrillard charges that economics, like conventional political theory, has inherited a mythology of our Paleolithic ancestors as living in a world dominated by scarcity: from Hobbes to Malthus.
‘In the past’, (before the Rube Goldberg Machine) subsistence was (at best) what might be achieved – by slender margins for seasonal moments – as there was no accumulated surplus of stored food (grains in a granary, accounted for and guarded by bureaucrat-priests). ‘We’, in contrast as the inheritor-beneficiaries of the division of labour (and its modern-industrial civilisation), supposedly live in a world of surplus, a world of civilised surfeit that has overcome the dearths that were the scourges of our ancestors.
Baudrillard follows Sahlins in pishposhing this myth of our economics: our Paleolithic ancestors never lived with scarcity; they were the affluent society8, for they always had amply enough and never existed in a chronic state of lack and anxious worrying-waiting for the re up. It is we who are of the wanty wanty. Ours is the society of scarcity. We are dominated by scarcity, for we are obsessed by the spectre of scarcity’s return, after we consume, after we are consumed by consumption. This is because:
“The more one produces, the more clearly does one show up, amidst plenty, how irremediably far off is that final point which affluence would represent, defined as an equilibrium between human production and human goals. Since what is satisfied in a growth society, and increasingly satisfied as productivity grows, are the very needs of the order of production, not the 'needs' of man (the whole system depends indeed on these being misrecognized), it is clear that affluence recedes9 indefinitely: more precisely, it is irrevocably rejected and the organized reign of scarcity (structural penury) preferred” (66).
This big point that Baudrillard takes from Sahlins is empricially contentious, both in its own context, and in the immanence of a set of globally dispersed indigenous situations, then and now, that can’t really be generalised on the basis of what happened in the Pacific Northwest. We need to be a bit generous with our reading, because Sahlins and Baudrillard are trying to get at something that the mythologies of our economics ‘actively forget’ or keep refusing to know: poverty is not about a dearth or surfeit of possessions and boxes (and where, thus, by ‘adding’ a box where there wasn’t one, you would fix scarcity and ‘get’ affluence), it is a social relation:
“poverty is a social status” (Sahlins).
Affluence – on this basis, and in contrast – is being surrounded by the loving communion of one’s people, wanting (for) nothing.
Poverty is living in a world dominated by objects, being forced to live at the pace of objects, as we scroll to and from work, or sit alone in our car in a dark garage full of dead hobbies and empty boxes.
Our poverty, the poverty of our status on social, as we scroll, thus comes into sharp relief once we think back to Kaitlyn’s Kukumber, the global supply chain, our ‘giant waste-producing Rube Goldberg machine... that gives us dopamine spurts every day’, and cocaine as the ‘stock powder’ literally-metaphorically capable of consummating this whole mode of existence for any individual who consumes it. How?
The biopsychosocial urge we have to seek rewarding connection, to seek communion with people’s traces – their communications for us to consume, and what they’ve cooked up for us, to consume – is always marked by lack. It’s not only that it’s always our desire that makes us vulnerable, it’s our appetite-to-connect-for-reward that leads us to seek our way into our own private dopamine circuit (which runs into the collective deltas of consumption).
Once we’re in – as anyone who’s eaten ice cream or taken cocaine knows – getting’s waxing reward is perennially followed by the ebbing fading of dissatisfaction, the emptying out that happens as we empty out the box, lick our way through a partner or a bag (or a bag with a partner), and find our way sitting in that fallowed, burnt out room, with nothing for company but the emptiness that always awaits us at the end of the reward rollercoaster.
Not only that, but to the extent we become invested in styles of consumption for what they give us, as an affirmed identity in relation to a group of which we are a co-consuming part, we need our objects, and need to consume them, in order to feel that we exist. Yet this raises the spectre of destruction (thus again, dearth, scarcity, poverty):
“The consumer society needs its objects in order to be. More precisely, it needs to destroy them. The use of objects leads only to their dwindling disappearance. The value created is much more intense in violent loss. This is why destruction remains the fundamental alternative to production: consumption is merely an intermediate term between the two. There is a profound tendency within consumption for it to surpass itself, to transfigure itself in destruction. It is in destruction that it acquires its meaning. Most of the time in daily life today, it remains subordinate - as a managed consumptivity - to the order of productivity. This is why, most of the time, objects are present by their absence, and why their very abundance paradoxically signifies penury. Stock is the excessive expression of lack and a mark of anxiety. Only in destruction are objects there in excessand only then, in their disappearance, do they attest to wealth. At any rate, it is clear that destruction, either in its violent and symbolic form (the happening, potlatch, destructive acting-out, both individual and collective) or in its form of systematic and institutional destructive ness, is fated to become one of the preponderant functions of postindustrial society” (47, italics in original).
In 1567, 300 years before Albert Niemann named the alkaloid salt he’d isolated ‘cocaine’, Breughel painted Het Luilekkerland, ‘The Land of Cockcaigne’.
WikiPedia describes it perfectly: “In medieval times, Cockaigne was a mythical land of plenty, but Bruegel's depiction of Cockaigne and its residents is not meant to be a flattering one. He chooses rather a comic illustration of the spiritual emptiness believed to derive from gluttony and sloth, two of the seven deadly sins”.
Again, we’re back to fantasy (and so to full circle, and in conclusion); but not the subjective fantasies of any living individual, with whatever kooks and kinks and kukumbers they might dekontain. Rather – and this is why consumption is a social fact and a collective morality that puts paid to the utility, pleasure and individual choice of economics’ mythology – with consumption, we find ourselves partaking of a collective bonfire, a destructive feast, held together and animated by a shared fantasy whose fuel is not even and not only dopamine stock cubes, but rather the luxurious idea that there should be too much:
“Our markets, major shopping thoroughfares and superstores also mimic a new-found nature of prodigious fecundity. These are our Valleys of Canaan where, in place of milk and honey, streams of neon flow down over ketchup and plastic. But no matter! We find here the fervid hope that there should be not enough, but too much - and too much for everyone: by buying a piece of this land, you acquire the crumbling pyramid of oysters, meats, pears or tinned asparagus. You buy the part for the whole. And this metonymic, repetitive discourse of consumable matter, of the commodity, becomes once again, through a great collective metaphor - by virtue of its very excess - the image of the gift, and of that inexhaustible and spectacular prodigality which characterizes the feast” (26).
Baudrillard is engaging in some revealing, productive wordplay; remember the French title was La societe de consommation, the resonances of which are a bit lost in English, until he pulls them back into focus.
Like: it is no coincidence that we say ‘I could pound a bowl of chips’ or ‘I could smash a beer right now’. The sexual and destructive overtones are not coincidental, they actually express the collective structure of consumption as the de facto global lingua franca (ie how we actually communicate ‘identity’ ‘group’, ‘distinction’ between and to one another).
Kelly Casperson’s great sex podcast is really frank about this: we are surrounded by so many abundant sources of ‘cheap’ (low immediate cost) dopamine that sex (and by its implication seduction and propositioning someone) becomes unappealing. Your partner may be way more into their ice cream than you; that’s also cos ice cream doesn’t need-want anything from you and gives itself to you totally… all you have to do is consume it and keep consuming this to maintain this relation, which, compared to humans, is pretty low maintenance.
The explanation from demand implicates all of us in global cities, and it aligns well with the lived understandings and professed values of Actually Existing Neoliberalism and its service economies, especially in post-industrial gentrified areas of global cities where there are large groups of people who have a harsh working week, but lots of disposable income*, and a wish to appear at venues and festivals ‘to party’. Follow the contemporary demiurge of What Wotan Wants, and you’ll find yourself at a wedding party or after hours kick on, with yackety yak and a bag of gak. One need only notice how ‘getting a bag’ has become standard fare for the groom’s entourage at suburban weddings, notice that ‘bags’ (which even get called nose bags here) get passed around on Friday at childcare pick up in coastal-regional Australia, or that lines are offered at the in-home meetings of school mothers’ groups in nice suburbs, to see that demand-side explanations explain a lot more than those of supply.
*Had Haber and Bosch been their possible ancestor Arminius, they’d have been too busy battling Romans to do so; had Diesel been Arminius’ Neolithic ancestor, presumably he’d have been gathering wood and pounding grain; had Niemann been his Paleolithic ancestor, he’d be out picking or tripping on mushrooms, or in a group hunting megafauna with wild antlers. The importance of the division of labour – as the difference that has made the difference between us and our genetically indifferent but culturally disparate ancestors – is really worth exploring, as is the contingency and peculiarity of the modern-urban worlds we currently inhabit, like those of VaporSpace. A lot of the recent histories of everything have focused on this; for what it’s worth, just read James Scott’s Against the Grain.
As Graeber and Wengrow do in The Dawn of Everything.
Sahlins and especially Baudrillard are writing with-and-against JK Galbraith’s 1958 The Affluent Society