Believe me when I say that all I wanted to do this Sunday was to enjoy the city during my walk. The sidewalks were finally free of the soft and soggy snow. It was not too cold out, the sun was low, and cumulus clouds were high and slow. Not long after passing Daejeon Park, I came across a new piece of public furniture (circular in design; stone and concrete in substance) in Sturgus Park. It's surrounded by dark wintering trees and is above the pedestrian plank-way on the side of the hill.
While sitting in the middle of this park, I saw crows freaking out about something (lord knows what) that was happening in the area behind me (the Pacific Medical Center); I saw a jogger on the plank-way; I saw a bus pass a gas station that sold a kind of wine I liked. These fleeting events in the grand process of urban life were exactly what my walk was supposed to provide. No direction, no destination; but a dérive that blew through Beacon Hill. My drifting came to an end when I happened to cross Jose Rizal Bridge. I was hit at once by the hard heart of my inverted society.
On the east side of the bridge, a huge public storage facility; on the west side, the homeless on a hill. On one side, a place for things; on the other, humans with no place to live. This absurdity was not just about Seattle but also constituted the nature of the only kind of culture I have experienced. The culture of things first.
What does it mean to say that the kind of society I and almost all other humans live in is inverted? It means not just that it's weird we have homeless people on the side of a bridge and housing for things that are not even used (and not alive) on the other. It ultimately means that this kind of human organization is accepted. It's not at all shocking. Most in Seattle do not find it unusual. The people on the west side of the bridge are less important than the things owned by people on the bridge's other side.
On that Sunday, I looked at I-5 and saw people going to wherever they were going; looked at the bay, and saw ferries heading to downtown or local islands; looked on First Hill, and saw new apartment buildings rising from the ground. They city was still functioning despite the outrageous fact that on one side of this bridge there were living things without a place, and the other, dead things with a place. How is this possible? This calm on a Sunday afternoon?
I take the idea of inverted society from the way it is developed by Werner Bonefeld, a British-based German critical theorist. The idea is important because it exposes the fact that human togetherness (or "being with-others") is culturally constructed. This is lost on most, and as a consequence the absurdity of a place for things and no place for members of the community (beings with us) seems natural. Furthermore, Bonefeld's critique points to the dramatic element of this kind of class ordering. Because it is closer to the cultural than the social, it's closer to theater than to the ants.
Werner Bonefeld on social inversion (PDF):
[In respect to inversion,] Marx’s work focuses on forms, at first on forms of consciousness (i.e., religion and law), then later on the forms of capital. The focus on forms was identical with the critique of the inverted forms of social existence, an existence constituted by human social practice. All these forms obtain as inverted forms of a "community" that is external to the individuals, and from which they must emancipate themselves in order ever to be able to interact with one another "as individuals"... It is thus a matter of deciphering the appearance [Schein] of independence that this "surrogate of community" posits in order to reveal its "human basis" and then of abolishing it practically from the world, allowing human beings to enter into relationship with one another, not as character-masks, but as social individuals.This is complicated passage. But it's simple. What made the situation on Jose Rizal Bridge possible is that we have taken the mask we wear in this kind of society as actually real. But we must remember that, as humans, we wear masks all of the time. This is a consequence of us being profoundly cultural animals.
And it is here I have to make some distinctions (not made Bonefeld) that are needed if progress on this matter (society/culture) is to be obtained. There is an order to our kind of animal: We have nature (the all), then the society (the class), and finally culture (the animal itself). The last is very fluid; the second, much less so; the first, even much, much, much less so. But what we often see in the world around us, and its structural forms, is misrecognized as the society, when it is instead the culture. It is this that makes it possible for most to see the homeless as animals on the level of society, and not as animals on the level of culture. In this way, the homeless remain on the level of other social animals—ants, bees, termites. And it is precisely this obfuscation that turned my Sunday walk upside down. The city registers what I saw on Jose Rizal Bridge as pretty normal. As something that's not absolutely shocking because it is social, rather than cultural—the former having a constitution that is as different from the latter as Silly Putty is to steel.
But back to the drama. The people on the one side of the bridge are not poor. They are playing the poor. And the things on the other side are things, but they are playing people.