Solid Air (HUM415)


“All that is solid that melts into air” is not a metaphysical statement, some kind of fortune cookie pronouncement about the nature of reality in general. It is, instead, a critical metaphor, one which dramatizes a process that is characteristic of our lived experience of capitalist modernity.

The metaphor comes from chemistry. The conversion of a solid directly into a gas– what is known as sublimation– seems to possess a kind of quick magic.

The question that confronts us is this: what exactly does the phrase metaphorize?

Depending on our understanding of the first section of The Manifesto of the Communist Party and our interpretation of Mark Boulos’s video installation, there are several possible responses to this question.

We can read “solid” as naming a SOCIAL condition that is stable and certain– one that, metaphorically, has mass and provides a foundation. We can read “air” as that which is apparently unfixed and lacking in materiality. The wind goes where it wants to; you cannot hold air in your hand.

Capitalism has created a world that is dynamic and in flux. These qualities are often touted as benefits in the rhetoric of what Hall might call “neoliberal hegemony.”

Think of the lexicon of contemporary capitalism. In the 1990s, before the Silicon Valley bubble popped, companies advertised themselves as the heroes of a new, “weightless” economy. IT was the next Sutter’s Mill. Value would accumulate without the dreary limits and encumbrances entailed by commodity production. Intoxicated by a notion that all you needed to make millions was a few tech geeks and a snappy pitch, entrepreneurs watched in wonder as venture capitalists ejaculated cash and share prices soared.

Within months it all tumbled down. Bankrupt companies auctioned ergonomically-designed office furniture to appease their creditors. After a relatively brief period when investors and entrepreneurs reeled around town wasted from huffing the fumes of “irrational exuberance”, the “business cycle” turned 180 degrees.

The solid/air metaphor captures this instability not simply in terms of market vicissitudes but in the daily lives of those who inhabit a world governed by exchange value.

Recall that value comes in two basic forms: 1) use value, which signifies the purpose or function of a thing and 2) exchange value, which is determined by the inscrutable logic of “the market.” When we assess an object according to its exchange value we privilege its quantitative dimension over the peculiar qualities it may possess. Thus $100 will get you two steak dinners OR a pair of shoes OR a handful of K-pop CDs. According to the principle of exchange, all of these items are equivalent: each of them is “worth” a hundred bucks.

Use value dissolves into exchange value. An object produced for human use (or a natural resource) dematerializes as it enters the labyrinth of commerce and speculation.

At the same time the lives of those who do not own vast amounts of capital (i.e., almost all of us on the planet) become more precarious. We’ve used the noun form of this last term repeatedly in class: precarity, the condition of precariousness caused by a social formation governed not by a rational, egalitarian distribution of resources but by the increasingly baroque “financial instruments” (collateralized debt obligations, etc.) invented by speculators in pursuit of profits.

Boulos’s visual intervention in both of these aspects of the solid/air metaphor– precarity, dematerialization– should be readily apparent, I hope. If it’s not, then take a few minutes to think it through.